For Rebecca Stern, ballroom dancing isn't just something to watch on "Dancing With the Stars." It's something she has enjoyed doing since 2008 -- and sharing with others.
"It's really been a game changer for me in terms of physical fitness, the people I've come in contact with and just the fulfillment I get from being a ballroom dancer," she said.
As a member of the board of the Upper St. Clair School District with a background in special education, she is regularly asked to organize dance programs for various occasions.
"When I looked around, I really didn't see a lot of options to share ballroom dancing with different special groups," she said.
To fill this void, she founded with her husband Yes, You Can Dance!, a nonprofit that aims to increase access to dance for senior citizens and people with special needs. This weekend, it will celebrate its first anniversary at the Community & Recreation Center in Upper St. Clair with a public dance social for seniors and a private party for the program's special needs dancers, their families and dance mentors.
In its inaugural year, the program started offering free weekly classes for intellectually challenged individuals. The classes maintain a limited capacity of about 15 or so students, many of whom are young adults in their 20s and 30s. On Sundays at Steel City Ballroom in Mt. Lebanon, studio owner Christopher Roth teaches students the basics of dances, such as the cha-cha or merengue.
"What Chris has developed in our curriculum is to start with dances where for every beat there's a step," Ms. Stern said.
Choreography also helps students master shifting from one foot to the other, and pictures are placed on the walls to serve as directional cues for students, rather than asking them to turn to the right or left. Students also are assigned dance mentors, who undergo training and are vetted for security purposes before participating in classes.
After completing the six-week introductory session, those interested in learning more can sign up for advanced-level classes. The nonprofit also supports an exhibition team of special needs dancers that performs throughout Pittsburgh.
"Parents tell me [the students are] excited for next Sunday the moment they leave," the group's assistant director, Joanna Reed, said.
For seniors, the group has held dance socials that take place in the afternoon so guests do not have to worry about commuting after dark. If dancers don't bring their own partner, there's no need to worry about being a wallflower: Dance hosts are recruited to mix and mingle with guests.
"We have volunteer dancers from all over the Pittsburgh area ... who come and whose role is that everybody who wants to dance gets to dance," Ms. Stern said.
Past gatherings have welcomed University of Pittsburgh medical students studying geriatrics as an opportunity for them to spend time with seniors outside of a medical setting.
Heading into its second year, Yes, You Can Dance! plans to expand its offerings. It also hopes to find more platforms for spreading the word throughout the community.
In its first year, the Pittsburgh chapter of USA Dance, the national governing body of DanceSport, and PA Connecting Communities, which unites individuals with disabilities with others in their communities, are a couple of local organizations that have helped promote the young nonprofit.
As a long-term goal, Ms. Stern would like ballroom to become part of the Special Olympics.
"This has been a great year for me," she said. "I've really enjoyed launching this program and really seeing the positive impact it's had on a number of people and we hope to grow and continue that."
From 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday, those 60 and older are invited to join dance hosts at a birthday party for the program. Light refreshments and performances will pepper the afternoon. Attire is semi-formal or upscale casual, and like other senior dance events, no partner is required. Admission is $8 in advance at www.yesyoucandance.org, or $10 at the door.
On Sunday, there will be a private get-together for the program's special needs dance students.
Sara Bauknecht: firstname.lastname@example.org. First Published November 1, 2012 4:00 AM