A Catatonic’s Bit of Heaven

  • April 16, 2019

This article first appeared in the April 2019 issue of Autism Parenting magazine (p.47).

Peter Tran dances with his dance instructor

I enter the room late. My brother drives me to ballroom dance class on time, but I get stuck in the car and can’t move. I have this pair of swim goggles that I had just modified, having cut out all the rubbery parts except for most of the strap. I am enjoying the crisp rattle of the clear plastic as I shake them in my hand. Every so often I give them a sharp tap with the other hand and feel the rubbery reverberations as the goggles bounce back and forth on the elastic strap. Most gratifying!

“Peter!” my brother’s voice breaks through my reverie. “Let’s get going!”

I tell my legs to move, and slowly they obey. I inch to class, stopping every few seconds to get in another tap on my goggles.

The studio of Sloan and Sloan is a grand building, but very old-fashioned. You walk under rusted ornate curvilinear ironwork, through heavy wooden double doors into an enormous dance space. But the cost of the high cathedral ceilings is: no air conditioning.

I feel hot, and as someone with mild catatonia, heat renders me immovable. I flop down into the nearest chair and look around.

My classmates are paired up and lined up in a row already on the dance floor. They are doing the tango. Slow-slow-quick-quick-slow. My flamboyant friend, Becca, immediately steps out of line, abandoning her partner, Jose, and comes running over. “Oh no, here she comes!” I cringe, bracing for the hit.

“Peter Pie! Peter Pie!” Becca swallows me in a huge hug and squeezes tight. Dear Becca, she’s Italian. As she runs around the room, hugging all the parents, I notice quiet Jose standing patiently, waiting for her, or someone, anyone, to reorient him. All the kids in my ballroom dance class have nonverbal autism and dyspraxia, but Jose is also blind.

A mom starts to work with him, but stops to chat with another parent. While her back is turned, Becca comes whirling back like a tornado and whisks Jose down the dance floor. I watch as the pair practically makes it all the way across and back before the other mom even realizes they are gone. Becca is the locomotive and keeps them on track, straight down the line of dance, while Jose keeps perfect time.

The next thing I know, I feel a cool breeze blowing on my back. Anna, our dance teacher par excellence, has positioned one of the studio’s several industrial-sized fans behind me. She is gesturing to the parents and students who all pull up chairs in a circle around me. Next thing I know, we’re all dancing in our chairs, stomping the rhythm of the cha-cha-cha with our feet. After a few more moves in the chair in front of the fan, I find I have revived. I stand up and dance the cucaracha, better, I think to myself, than most.

I could go on and on about my ballroom dance class. My friend Julia has severe loss of motor tone so that her arms ache the day after dance class just from holding them up on my shoulders. My friend Auggie is perfectly silent most of the time but periodically startles everyone when he lets loose with a high-pitched whistle. Nicole, however, has the most beautiful smile. Auggie dances with his grandmother, and they drive over an hour each way to come to class.

I think heaven must be a little like my dance class. Everyone’s loved, everyone’s accepted, and everyone gets what they need to dance. Jose supplies the rhythm, Becca the energy. I hold up Julia’s arms, and she smiles at me.

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