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The calm and relaxing lyrics of Feist’s “1234” fill the room as three college students, a teacher, and two little boys sit in a circle and prepare to perform a dance that mimes riding and driving in a car. As the dancers extend their arms forward, grip an imaginary steering wheel, and prepare to step on the gas, the choreography that was just an idea a few minutes ago suddenly comes to life.

Phuc Pham | New University
Phuc Pham | New University

It’s a typical Tuesday night in Andrew Palermo’s dance class. However, this isn’t a usual dance class filled with pliés, fouettés or grand jetés. While Palermo does try to incorporate some ballet terminology when he can, this is a class specially tailored for children with autism.

Along with the Behavior Intervention team at The Center for Autism & Neurodevelopmental Disorders, Palermo developed a creative movement and dance class that incorporates warm-ups/stretches, strengthening exercises and a final routine choreographed mostly by the students. Several studies suggest a connection between physical activity and improvements in behavior, social skills, development and academic performance, so this is exactly what Palermo hopes to provide for every student that he teaches.

Aside from teaching these classes each week, Palermo is also an assistant professor of drama at UC Irvine. He currently teaches a musical theater dance class this quarter, where he enlisted his assistants for the creative movement workshops. Palermo has been teaching and choreographing for about nine years, but his roots are planted elsewhere — on Broadway.

After receiving a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts in Musical Theater from College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati, Palermo moved on to build his stage career. He performed in the original cast of “Wicked,” toured with a production of “West Side Story,” and gained several other stage credits. After years of performing, Palermo made an abrupt shift and decided to focus solely on teaching dance and choreography. He started a contemporary dance company called dre.dance with his childhood best friend Taye Diggs in 2005.

In 2007, Wichita State University asked the company to commission a huge piece on any type of “big” topic. Unsure of what to do, an idea struck one day while Palermo was on the elliptical machine at the gym. A CNN special played on a TV about a woman with autism — her name is Amanda Baggs. She is considered low-functioning; in other words, she’s unable to speak. Baggs made a series of videos about what it’s like to be her on a daily basis.

“Her whole point is that ‘just because I don’t speak your language [most neurotypical people’s language], doesn’t mean that my language isn’t totally valid,’” Palermo said. “‘And the way that I interact with the world is the way that I interact with the world — it doesn’t make it less valid, it just makes it different.’ Her whole point was a) stop making me a non-person and b) maybe I don’t want to be cured and maybe this is who I am and how I like being.”

“And it was just huge to me — a huge, huge statement.”

From that moment on, Palermo knew that he had to make his piece about autism. In 2007, he and his company set out to create the piece “beyond.words.”

The number centers around a boy with autism and the everyday struggles with which he and his parent live. The dancers present different stages of the boy’s life through a combination of a narrative story line and interpretive dance.

“I wanted to make a piece that provided sympathy to people with autism and sort of looked at autism with less of a ‘this needs to be eradicated’ eye and more of a ‘can we just look at people with autism and say this is a way of being,’” Palermo said.

Once the piece became more widespread and well received, people began asking Palermo to teach workshops for children with autism. He started in Wichita and moved all over the country until he ended up in Irvine recently. When applying for the position at UCI, Palermo gave a presentation about his “beyond.words” piece, which alerted faculty members of his interest in autism and the previous work he has done. Palermo then connected with The Center for Autism & Neurodevelopmental Disorders in Santa Ana once he got the job, and from there created the center’s first wellness initiative in the form of dance classes.

The classes began in mid-November, and have received positive reception from participants and their parents so far. There are two different classes — one for children ages 4-7 and the other for ages 8-13 — so that age and developmentally appropriate content can be provided.

The first class of Palermo’s on Tuesday nights is for the 4-7- year-olds and is the one in which two blonde-haired little boys named Dean and Matthew are working on the dance to emulate driving a car. Each week, the dance topic is different — the week before, the boys were told to make up a dance where they pretended to be animals.

When the boys enter the class, they jump around and excitedly ask what kind of animals they get to be this week. Palermo explains to them that it’s time to try something new this time, but assures them it will be just as fun.
As the class progresses, Palermo balances pushing for independence, while providing support at the same time. The comfort level that he displays with the children makes his job look easy, but the role of a teacher is filled with more obstacles than meet the eye. Although he is sometimes presented with students who are uncooperative, he keeps pushing through because he sees the impact of movement.

Palermo has heard from parents of his students that after his classes, a lot of children have started putting together full sentences when they previously were unable to do so.

Additionally, Palermo also notices that these classes help improve social engagement.

But above all, Palermo hopes that his piece and workshops will help further his message of autism acceptance and understanding.

“90 percent of the time, people with autism are being treated as if they are broken or wrong or there’s something about them that’s not the way it should be,” he said.

“So the whole point of the piece, and now the point of these classes, is to say that for chunks of time — whether it’s a 45 minute dance class or an hour long dance piece — let’s let them not be wrong and just be who they are.”

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