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The Surprising Thing My Daughter With Down Syndrome Taught Me

As a parent, you hope you can teach your kids a few things. That is our job, after all. That, and embarrassing our kids when they become tweens and teens. Or are those considered perks?

I digress…

While I’m trying my best to be a good teacher, I am amazed at how many things my kids seem to teach me. In fact, I sometimes wonder if my youngest, Willow, has a secret file cabinet full of lesson plans. She’s taught me so much!

Willow has Down syndrome.

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Before her arrival in this world, I really didn’t know what that meant. Now I know. Just minutes after birth, Willow taught me that a life changing diagnosis like Down syndrome doesn’t have to be negative. It’s just a diagnosis. We get to choose whether to embrace it or fear it. Now, five years in, I can honestly say that an extra 21st chromosome is beautiful. Google, textbooks and even doctors don’t come close to describing its wonder. The best lessons about Down syndrome are taught by those who have it, like Willow.

Some of the things I’ve learned from my daughter are not surprising. She’s taught me about acceptance, the power of prayer and the gift of patience. At the moment, she’s teaching me about persistence. I should remind you, Willow is a preschooler and very strong willed. I always thought persistence paid off. I’m beginning to wonder if that’s true. Whenever I say “no” or “stop,” Willow seems to persist. So, I persist. After a while, I forget what we’re arguing and persisting about. Maybe the lesson isn’t about persistence, but rather staying focused?

I digress again…

Of all the things Willow has taught me, one of  the most silly, most surprising and most valuable is how to dance.

You read right.

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I have never been a dancer. In fact, I have nightmares about some of the junior high dances I attended in my youth. Picture me, flush with the wall, frozen, unable to move, let alone dance.

Willow likes to dance. Correction, loves to dance. She also loves music. She often goes to bed singing and wakes up the same way. Music moves her. Most often, literally.

While my tiny dancer will dance by herself, she craves a party. Anyone near her when the music starts is invited. I should remind you of my earlier comments about persistence. Willow doesn’t take “no” for an answer.

When Willow was younger, I would join her dance parties reluctantly. I’d sway my hips back and forth and throw up an occasional hand.

But that was it.

As time moved on, I found myself focusing less on how awkward I felt and more on how Willow made me feel. Willow doesn’t just dance. She is dance. She moves however the song moves her. She twists to TobyMac, jumps to Justin Timberlake and boogies to Barney. Genre doesn’t matter. Neither do people’s opinions.

Willow doesn’t dance for others. She dances for herself. It brings her joy. And that joy is contagious….

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I don’t know when things changed for me. I just know that one day, during a 6:30 a.m. dance party, I became aware of my unawareness. My hips were doing more than just swaying. My body was all over the living room floor, my smile was big and my heart full. What’s more? I was in front of a giant window! I was no longer delighting in Willow’s joy. I was creating my own.

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I’m sure to some, dance is just a recreational activity. For me, it’s much more.

Dance is a life saver. It’s stress relief when sickness and struggle hit. A distraction from life.

Dance lifts me up when life is heavy. It transports me to a place of freedom, happiness and good feelings.

On the flip side, dance is a way to celebrate when a smile just isn’t enough. It’s a way to fully express my emotion. It brings happiness to life.

Willow taught me how to dance. And through dance, she taught me how to let go and find joy, no matter the time, place or circumstances. It’s amazing how a little shuffle can shift your mood or a spin can lift your spirit.

Life is full of ups and downs. By adding some twists, bobs and shimmys, Willow’s taught me how to move through them all.

I’m so thankful for my dance teacher….

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…. but I would like to add that “Baby Shark” is getting old.

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A version of this story originally appeared on The Mighty Willow.