Dancing Dreams, a 501 (c) 3 nonprofit founded by Sag Harbor resident Joann Ferrara, allows aspiring dancers that are physically or medically challenged to fulfill their dream of dancing during weekly classes, with assistance from teens that take part in the program’s Leadership Program.
What started with just five girls and one location has flourished into 130 dancers – both girls and boys – and three Dancing Dreams outposts, Bayside, Upper East Side, and Plainview. Filmmaker Catherine Tambini, who has a home in Hampton Bays, shares the program’s inspiring story in her latest film, Perfectly Normal for Me.
How did you hear of the Dancing Dreams after school program?
CT: I first heard about it through Elizabeth Hemmerdinger, who is my producing partner on this film. We didn’t know each other and she knew me as a filmmaker. I was referred to her by another filmmaker. My first documentary was about the ballerina, Suzanne Farrell, of New York City Ballet. I’ve done a number of social issue documentaries. She came to me with the project and she first knew about it because it’s actually an interesting story. She has twin granddaughters and when they were born, they were in the neonatal intensive care unit. She was freaked out that something was going to happen – that they would be disabled. She made a promise at that point that she would do anything that she could to help families who were affected by disability. Fast forward a few years, she’s watching a news program and sees Dancing Dreams. That was when Veronica [one of the film’s stars], I think was about five-years-old. She’s always been such an amazing kid and so Elizabeth decided that she would do something to help Dancing Dreams. Fast forward a few more years and she decided that a film would be a good idea. That’s how we sort of came together.
How long did you follow the documentary’s subjects?
CT: It was over the school year and then over the summer, the following summer, and then a little bit into the next school year. But we followed the process of them, all the helpers and the dancers coming together and meeting each other and getting to know each other. A lot of them knew each other already. We followed that process through to the recital.
As there are quite a few students that participate in the program, how did you decide who to focus on?
CT: That was really difficult. There were so many who stood out. But the four that we decided that would be the ones, they sort of sifted out because of their stories and because of how accessible they were. I needed complimentary stories, I needed things that weren’t the same as other stories. These four really stood out.
It was like cutting off my fingers to cut some of the other people out because they were all truly remarkable children and parents and families, but like the Vega twins, the little five-year-olds, they were so open to me from the very first day, and their mother was really open and she just let me in. She was the one who really welcomed me first and as you see, some of the most intimate stuff is with the Vegas and Laura, their mom. So, it was basically access – who I could connect to and would the stories complement each other?
How does participating in Dancing Dreams impact the students?
CT: It’s amazing! You see them blossom through the school year. It helps them build self-confidence. Because they’re with other children who have disabilities also, they don’t feel isolated, they feel accepted and they feel supported and loved and it’s a wonderful community. The parents sit in the back and exchange doctors and programs and even equipment. As the kids grow out of their wheelchairs, they pass them along to other ones. But for the kids, they bond with their helpers. A lot of them, they have really wonderful relationships with their helpers and they go on to stay in contact with them. It’s just a really supportive and loving program.
The children’s positivity and can-do spirit was really inspiring. Is there anything that stuck with you from spending time with participants?
CT: Yes, it’s really interesting because I’ve always been kind of a perfectionist, and I’ve been really hard on myself. They really showed me that I need to accept myself for who I am and accept what I can do and what I can’t do and what I can’t do, find other ways to do it. They’re so positive, so many of them, in so many ways. They’re so loving towards each other and accepting of each other. It’s really taught me a lot.
Is there a message that you hope people will take away?
CT: I hope that they will also be more accepting of themselves. My cousin, she has multiple sclerosis, and she says we’re all only temporarily able bodied. I hope that people will realize that everyone’s the same. We all have our different things that make us unique and some of the things that make these children unique have to do with their disabilities, but their disabilities don’t limit them. I hope that people will look at it, at people with disabilities, in a whole new way. I find that after screenings, it’s really interesting because you feel that the audience begins to transform. They stopped seeing the children with disabilities, they just see them as people. That’s what I’m hoping will happen, that everyone will see the humanity in everyone else.
As both you and Joann Ferrara [Dancing Dreams founder and executive director] have ties to the Hamptons, can we expect any East End screenings?
CT: I hope so. I don’t know. We don’t have anything planned at the moment. I would love to screen it at the Hamptons Doc Fest, but I don’t know that we will be selected for that. If anybody is interested in having a screening, I’m more than willing to come out and facilitate that.
What are you working on next?
CT: I have a project that I’m trying to get going. I’m trying to raise funds, which is always the hardest part about making documentaries. It’s about the criminal justice system, a Supreme Court doctrine, one of the most important ones that you’ve probably never heard of. It allows police to get out of jail free from violating your civil rights. I’m in the research and development phase on that one. And I’m teaching at NYU. I teach filmmaking at NYU.
Perfectly Normal for Me premieres on Tuesday, October 29, at 8 p.m., as part of America ReFramed on WORLD Channel’s and worldchannel.org. For more information on the film, visit www.perfectlynormalformedoc.com.