I met Mandy Mykitta, this month’s interviewee, at the Murdy Park community center in Huntington Beach, California. When I arrived, kids were outside playing on playground equipment and a game was in session on a basketball court while parents watched and chatted. Families spending time together outside? Imagine that! After a long day and getting stuck in traffic on the way to the interview, seeing some pure and simple positivity lifted my mood.
If witnessing the family time didn’t put a smile on my face, seeing Mandy would have. She’s one of those kind, genuine people who really wants to make the world a better place, and it beams out of her through her smile.
As part of that world-improvement effort, Mandy founded Dare to Dance, a nonprofit organization “dedicated to creating a fun-filled, inspiring experience for seniors and people with disabilities through the art of ballroom dance.” I met her at the community center because that was where Dare to Dance’s Wednesday night dance class, designed for special needs adults, was taking place. More of that happy “the world isn’t all bad” feeling hit me during our time together as I could hear some kind of music or singing class going on in an adjacent room. The kids were practicing a song from The Sound of Music.
Not a born dancer
Mandy wasn’t always a dancer and never intended to be. Her parents put her in ballet when she was little, but she hated it. She didn’t do any other dancing until she was exposed to ballroom about 5 years ago.
It was after college where she had studied theology (nothing to do with dance!). She had moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania simply because that was where her family was living at the time and she didn’t have any other specific plans. It was her mom who initiated Mandy’s introduction to ballroom dancing.
I was new to the area and didn’t really know anybody. My mom actually bought me my first few lessons because she thought, “This looks fun and it looks like it should be a good place to make some friends and get out and do something.”
Those lessons were at a local Arthur Murray studio. Though ballet didn’t appeal to her as a child, Mandy had thought ballroom dancing looked fun and interesting. She just never saw herself doing it until her mom bought her those lessons. As is so often the case, Mandy was quickly hooked.
I’m always interested in knowing if there was a specific aspect of ballroom that connected with a person. Sometimes I find it difficult to explain to non-ballroom dancers why ballroom dancing is so amazing! I loved what Mandy had to say about it:
It’s the kind of dance that very quickly gets you to a point where you feel like you’re actually dancing, rather than something like ballet, tap or jazz that takes a lot of work, a lot of effort, and a lot of practice…to get to where you feel like you’re really dancing.
I never thought about it that way, but it’s true! You can learn a basic ballroom routine in just one group class or one private lesson! That almost-instant reward for just a little effort at the beginning can be very addicting.
The student becomes the teacher.
After being a ballroom student for awhile, Mandy decided she wanted to work toward becoming a teacher. And not just any teacher, Mandy specifically wanted to work with those with special needs. She had nannied for a boy with Down syndrome when she was in college and saw how joyful he became whenever music came on. He would always try to dance or move to the rhythm. She shared her dream with her mom, but no one in the dance community knew. Someone else must have been listening though, because the opportunity to fulfill that dream was basically dropped in her lap.
One evening at a social dance, Mandy met a dance studio owner. They danced and chatted a bit throughout the night. He asked her if she taught, and after she told him no, he told her that she should. It was just a few weeks later when Mandy got her chance.
He looked me up on Facebook and a couple of weeks later, he sent me a message saying, “I have some special needs ballroom dance classes and I need help teaching them. Are you interested?”
Living the dream
Mandy was in her glory teaching those classes. She taught them for a year before making the move out to California in October 2015. Once she was settled in Orange County, Mandy knew she had to continue the work she started back East. She found the best way to do that would be to start her own organization.
Dare to Dance was born!
Dare to Dance started with Wednesday night classes at the Murdy Park community center, as well as a class at a group home in Laguna Beach. The people who attend have a variety of disabilities, physical and/or mental, including autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, ADHD, etc. She designed her classes to accommodate everyone while also ensuring they’re learning and having fun doing it.
Dance, magic dance
Mandy’s overall goal is, of course, to improve people’s lives in at least some small way. Some of the specific changes Mandy has witnessed in people are pretty amazing. She shared one story with me about a little girl who attends the group home classes.
I have one little girl who comes to [the group home] class every single time and she has a lot of physical handicaps. She doesn’t really have the use of one of her arms, and she walks with a cane or a walker. She didn’t talk much, she was very very quiet. It took about two months before I heard her speak for the first time. But even on Day 1, she came into the class and danced for the entire thing. She moved a little slower than everyone else, but that’s ok, she was moving! Then one of my volunteers overheard the staff talking afterward, and they said [the girl] never smiles and she had not stopped smiling for the entire class.
The next time, when she saw us coming, she got so excited that she was jumping up and down. We didn’t think she was physically capable of doing that!
Since starting the class in January, Mandy says the girl smiles all the time now and has started talking more to more people. Other changes that Mandy has witnessed include a man with cerebral palsy who was able to reduce the number of physical therapy visits he needed because he was getting a lot of the same benefits from dance class, and it was a lot more fun! She’s also seen people become happier and open up more through dance.
Wednesday night dance class
I could see that for myself when I hung around after our interview to observe the class. It was a mix of students and volunteers. Mandy had everyone put on a wristband as they checked in and she would use it as a tool to tell people which foot to start on. She would call out, “Show me your wristband! Bounce that wristband foot!”
Mandy’s smile never faded. She would sing along to the songs or call out to people to keep the energy up as they went through a warm-up exercise and then onto learning steps in swing, hustle and merengue. It was just like any other beginning ballroom group class, with the possible exception of closing out the class with the Chicken Dance! The joy in the room was infectious; I found myself smiling and tapping my foot as I sat in the corner taking notes.
Mandy wants everyone to know that anyone can dance, and she’s proving it with her Dare to Dance programs.
Anybody can do it. There shouldn’t be anything that stops them from participating, whether it’s physical, mental, emotional…any kind of handicap.
Mandy recognizes that a lot of the disabled community are also in a difficult financial situation that could inhibit them, which is why she started Dare to Dance as a nonprofit so she could keep costs as affordable as possible. The people participating in her Wednesday night class only pay $3 per class. The group home class is free.
These two programs are only the beginning. Mandy hopes to expand within the next year to offer dance programs specifically for people in wheelchairs and for people with Parkinson’s. Her goal is to continue expanding to reach additional groups of people, including those with multiple sclerosis, those with Alzheimer’s, active military personnel or veterans dealing with physical or mental injuries, etc.
Ultimately, I would love, down the road, to have a facility where I can offer lots of things for all of these groups of people. I would love to have a facility where they can come in and take a dance class or do physical therapy…speech therapy…music therapy… [I want to] expand into a place where people can come no matter what it is that they relate to the best – because dancing is great for a lot of people, but some people may relate better to playing an instrument or something else entirely. So I’d love to have almost like a one-stop shop where people can come and it doesn’t matter what they might relate to the best, they can try a little bit of everything and find it.
How you can help
If you want to support Mandy’s dream, Dare to Dance accepts direct donations through their website. They also work with Amazon Smile. If you shop at Amazon, you can make the same purchases through Amazon Smile and Amazon will donate 0.5% of the price of your eligible AmazonSmile purchases to Dare to Dance. Easy!
Dare to Dance can also always use volunteers. The best way to find out about volunteer opportunities is to email Mandy at daretodancehb @ gmail (dot) com or visit https://www.daretodancehb.org/.
Tell her the Girl with the Tree Tattoo sent you!