Sunday, April 25, 2010

Vive la danse!

Clem Snide--"Beautiful" (mp3)

When someone asks you to do something on a Friday night, and you say, "No, I've got the Special Olympics Dance," you are bound to get some strange looks and responses. I suppose it conjures up images of a "tacky prom" or one of those "K-Mart" dances that people used to have or some other upper middle class social event that makes fun of people less fortunate.

But, no, it really is a dance for Special Olympians, a "Victory Dance" that takes place on the night before the Special Olympics, and my Student Council has been privileged to host it for the past 5 or so years. A local fraternity used to do it, but they dropped that ball, and we picked it up.

Here's the game plan: Pizza, drinks, a DJ, and a popular batch of songs. From there, the dance pretty much runs itself, as long as you follow two simple rules. First, no waters; Special Olympians want sugar-infused drinks, preferably carbonated, and regardless of whichever ones you decide to supply, they will ask if you have different ones. Just like teenagers.

And, second, the DJ had better have some sense of the Special Olympians' Greatest Hits (not available from K-Tel on late-night TV) or he/she will be in for a long night. If you're going to DJ a Special Olympics dance, you had better have among your playlist at least the following: "The Cha-Cha Slide," "Who Let The Dogs Out," "Yeah!," "The Macarena," some version of "Rocky Top," and any other slides that have come out since the "Cha-Cha." Oh, yeah, and if you're going to buy a bunch of Little Caesar's pizza, make sure you get several Hawaiian pizzas (ham and pineapple).

If you are into community service in any way, shape, or form, this is one of the best events you can possibly be a part of. To see people who are so different from you and and even more similar to you doing things that you would enjoy doing, perhaps with a sense of freedom you don't have, it's a mind-blowing experience. Maybe it shouldn't be, but it is. The students who are involved don't know what hit them at first, because whatever they expected, it wasn't this. They hang on the edges, straightening boxes of pizza or not knowing what to do with their hands. It's so normal, but not quite. And then they must answer questions or are drawn into conversations (last night, their track events and the ones the Olympians would be participating in today) or are invited out onto the dance floor.

And, suddenly, whatever reserve that any of us would hold in that situation falls away.

We encounter a relatively-narrow version of what a person is in a given day or week, and to be drawn into a roomful of people who are different, to have to navigate their world, for once, instead of them having to navigate ours, well, that is an irrepressible epiphany.

When a Special Olympian speaks to you or dances with you or shares a photograph with you, you play by their rules, not yours. If they tell someone else that you are their best friend, you have to agree, and you have to mean it. If they stand outside, leaning against the railing and yell, "Beer! Beer! Beer!" you have to say, "Yeah, I could go for one, too." If they don't like to be touched or don't like their food to be touched, then you don't or you find a napkin to lift their pizza onto their plate. If they hold a piece of paper with a carefully-drawn vision of the world, you have to study it and try to understand it and nod your head. To do otherwise would be, well....inhuman.

But the dance won't go perfectly: someone will pee all over the floor, someone will puke in the sink. What will break your heart, though, will be that one set of parents. It will be those parents who are clearly embarrassed to be at the dance. If you work at a private school, like I do, you will notice that these parents will look exactly like your school parents--well-dressed, kind of preppy, well-groomed.

I've watched them for years; I think I know what they are about. They aren't embarrassed about their Down's Syndrome child, no, they love their child and their family has adapted to having a special child, and all of their friends treat their child with an embracing graciousness. What they are embarrassed about is having to be at a function like this with all of the other children and their families. Because Special Olympians come from all stations of life, and these parents are forced, at least for a few times each year, to accept a different least common demoninator than they are used to. And so, they hang outside on the perimeter, while their daughter spends one of those special nights where everyone around her is like her in ways that she is not like her parents.

And then the night will end, because dances must end with slow songs, because Olympians need their rest, because Olympics await, and so we escort them down the stairs that scare them in the dark, to cars that take them away from a night they don't want to end, the partings difficult if goodbyes that were meant to be said did not get said.

As for the rest of us, we had a certain amount of energy to devote to Olympians that aren't ours, but that has run out, and we look forward to folding chairs, loading bins with trash, turning off lights, and driving back to our homes. I don't say that negatively; more energy would be there if it needed to be. Such is the nature of our human race.


Anonymous said...

Great blog, Bob. One of the best memories of the last three years for me is the night that I chaperoned the Special Olympics dance and my girls came with me. Seeing them dancing with wild abandon, doing the bunny hop in a line of 40 Olympians, telling me how much fun they were having....awesome...

jed said...

wonderful post!