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How a Magazine Article Convinced a Former Ballet Dancer to Teach People With Down Syndrome

Colleen Perry was reading a People magazine article in February 2009 when a chill shot up and down her spine and she decided to change her life’s course.

The piece discussed an adaptive dance program within Boston Ballet designed for people Down syndrome and autism. Perry, a former ballet dancer and marriage/family therapist based in Los Angeles, heard a little voice in her head as she read.

“That’s what you’re supposed to be doing with your life,” it said. Perry didn’t question it.

In the following months, she flew to Boston to meet the program’s founder, Mickey Cassella, a specialist in physical and occupational therapy at Boston Children’s Hospital. Cassella let Perry sit in on classes and mentored her in creating a similar program.

The following year, Free 2 Be Me Dance opened in Santa Monica, California, offering ballet and hip hop classes to children and adults with Down syndrome. Today, Perry has anywhere from 20 to 30 students enrolled at a time, provides classes in three locations and will soon include children and adults with autism, too.

When filmmaker Jeannette Godoy stumbled upon a Free 2 Be Me performance, she knew she wanted to spread the word. Below, you can watch a trailer from Godoy’s recent documentary, where you’ll see footage from her 12-week observance of Perry’s program. You can watch the full documentary here.

Perry hopes, more than anything, that anyone who watches the film will experience the joy she feels every day at work.

“There’s no need to feel sorry for those who have special needs. Look at it in a different way,” Perry told The Mighty. “I hope the film’s takeaway is that you feel connected to people with special needs. If you’ve ever felt awkward or didn’t understand or felt pity, I’d hope this would change your beliefs. And if you already love somebody with special needs, the film is just another reason to celebrate them.”

Godoy, also a professional dancer, hadn’t worked with people with Down syndrome before working on this film. In the process of teaching others about people with disabilities, she learned a few things too.

“They’re capable of far more than most people think,” Godoy told The Mighty in an email. “They just have to be given the opportunities to experience life just like any other person.” Free 2 Be Me Poster