By: Allison Levine
It’s not every day that one sees children with various disabilities like cerebral palsy, autism, or Down syndrome put on a professional dance performance before a crowded theater. But that’s exactly what Dan Odiz, a Be’er Sheva resident who runs a successful dance studio, imagined—that dancing can be a tool that is available to anyone with any level of ability. Odiz’ studio is open to groups of dancers of all ages and ability levels who come and practicing daily and work on new routines. What makes this studio even more unique in Negev’s capital city is that it also brings special needs children into the studio’s dance acts, and this has had a profound effect for all involved.
As a student, Odiz studied special education and then became immersed in the world of dance while studying movement therapies. Throughout the years, he began to include special needs and disabled children into his dance classes. But Odiz wanted to do more. That’s when he turned to Tor HaMidbar, a Jewish National Fund (JNF) partner organization that works with local residents in Be’er Sheva and the Negev to strengthen the region socially and economically and provides entrepreneurs, such as Odiz, with mentoring and guidance to build successful businesses.
Nearly one in eight people in Israel live with a disability and one in five in the U.S., and the month of February is often referred to as Jewish Disabilities Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM). But JNF has rebranded it as an action month to ensure that everyone, regardless of individual challenges, is able to feel that they are supported and belong.
“I had an idea and a general direction, but I needed more,” said Odiz about his six month program with Tor HaMidbar, where he honed his business and marketing skills. “They helped me with planning and becoming better at what I was doing, but also at figuring out how to take my ideas to the next step. I worked directly with a mentor and was able to better build connections and networking opportunities.”
Through his work with Tor HaMidbar and in partnership with local organizations providing assistance to the region’s special needs and disabled population, Odiz launched “Everybody Dances.”
“The great part of ‘Everybody Dances’ is that we are also able to bring in kids from closed or overlooked groups, such as the Haredi and Bedouin communities, and even children of incarcerated parents,” Odiz said. “Coming from those populations isn’t a disability that’s visible, but it’s still a hardship and a hurdle to overcome to be able to fully explore one’s potential. To bring these kids together on the same stage is nothing short of amazing and it helps them see what they are capable of.”
For Odiz, “Everybody Dances” provides an outlet for all regardless of their level of ability. “When you see a child with Down syndrome dancing next to a child with autism, alongside a regularly developing child, and next to another who has trouble walking, it infuses everyone with so much power,” he said. Odiz himself is no stranger to working with people with disabilities. Aside from his educational background, Odiz grew up in a home with two deaf parents and a brother with cerebral palsy and epilepsy. “I feel like I’m able to push people labeled with ‘special needs’ to do more and to not allow them to use their disability as a crutch, which sometimes happens.” He added that dance “can show them that they are capable of so much more than being a label. At the start there was some slight hesitation even from those who were without special needs, but in the end, they too have been inspired by what they see, and work just as hard as everyone else.”
Odiz’s program shows that dance is a tool that levels the playing field and bringing together children that may not have met otherwise. At the same time, it also provides them with an opportunity to discover their inner dancer and increases their self-confidence. “It’s a process of normalization for many of the participants,” said Odiz. “It’s a beautiful thing to see what dancing and movement can do to increase a child’s self-esteem and belief in what he or she can do.”