Every so often a story comes along that makes me want to shout it from the rooftops. That compels me to want to write about it, put it on a podcast, film it for video, or hope to watch it as a movie or TV series. Sam’s story is such a story.
You may not realize it from the above photo, yet Sam’s considered as, “high functioning” Autistic. Now 18 and having just completed her Higher School Certificate (HSC in NSW, Australia) with the goal of going to university in 2022, Sam has been dancing at a studio on the gorgeous Northern Beaches of Sydney since she was tiny child.
On the weekend before we met, Sam danced as part of five Troupe ensembles that won 1st place for her studio at the, All Star National Cheer and Dance Competition held at Homebush Stadium; an event which attracted 1100 teams and up to 10,000 dancers from around the country. Winning means that in April next year Sam and her troupe friends will travel to Florida for the World’s Championships to compete against some of the best cheer and dance teams on the planet.
To talk about her incredible journey, I caught up with Sam, her Mum Linda and their Studio Principal, Michelle Walsh at XDream Dance on a sunny Friday morning in early December 2021.
“The most interesting people you’ll find are ones that don’t fit into your average cardboard box. They’ll make what they need, they’ll make their own boxes.” ~ Dr. Temple Grandin
Linda recounts that Sam started dancing at about 4 years of age. To be more accurate, she had a Chorus Line-like experience, following her older sister Jennifer into Physical Culture (Physie) classes, where Sam would move around at the back of class by herself, not yet focused or connected. Yet obviously Sam was interested enough in some aspect of the energy or atmosphere to want to be there, which was strongly encouraged by Linda who’d participated in dance classes herself and felt that it might help with Sam’s hand/eye coordination and social skills.
Before long Sam was engaging, as best she could.
Linda goes on to explain that due to where Sam sat on the Autism spectrum it meant she couldn’t ever be still for long periods of time, hold eye contact consistently and wasn’t very verbal. She’d move her body constantly and was prone to regular outbursts, as emotion flooded her system, overcoming her, forcing her to act out, sometimes dramatically.
I asked Sam to try and describe these experiences, what they felt like for her and she explained that it was as though:
“Your body just wants to move to another station, another area. It feels like you’re stuck in a bubble, and you want to get out of that bubble and go into a different bubble.”
I was further keen to understand what it was that initially attracted Sam to dancing, and why she stayed. While there’s rarely a simple answer for any of us, the reasons for Sam can be boiled down to the following, which are provided in the order she prioritises them.
First and most compelling, it was and remains the friends group that Sam came to make at the dance studio. While she initially came along following in the footsteps of her sister, she soon felt accepted by the community at Xdream Dance. This is no small thing because Sam was usually made to feel as though she was an outsider, not “normal” and prone to being bullied, at times cruelly, by young kids within the mainstream school system.
“Kids can be mean … once they cotton on to someone who’s a bit different. But everyone here (Xdream Dance) is very accepting. It’s very much a family, that protects each other” ~ Linda
And while most teachers within the mainstream school system did what they could to try and accommodate Sam’s unique requirements, Sam never felt accepted during the years of her primary school learning. During her first few years at High School, Sam was moved from mainstream classes to “Special Needs” or “Integrated Studies” classes within the mainstream school. Yet Sam still found herself suffering from anxiety, panic attacks and was crying a lot. During those early years, it was only at Xdream Dance that Sam came to feel comfortable, and so the studio soon became a second trusted home.
When I ask Michelle (Studio Principal) about this, she explains that a spirit of inclusion has been a driving force for her since starting her first studio almost 30 years ago. She insists that all who attend, be they young students, her adult practitioners or staff, must embrace a sense of tolerance for the new and different, no matter what guise it comes in; be it a new person coming into the studio or into a performance group, a new environment they have to work in, or new choreography etc. While “tolerance” might have a slightly negative connotation in the sense of putting up with the different, for Michelle it’s part of a realistic process that understands that most of us feel slightly defensive when confronted by the new or different when it’s not our choice. Yet by demanding tolerance at the start, it ensures everyone is more likely to embrace change with an open mind, which in time leads to acceptance with an open heart.
It strongly resonated with me that this is articulated as part of the learning process, and so, as part of the organic flow of conversation between us, this process was extended to include, “celebration”; where finally a given change is not merely tolerated, and then accepted, yet is ultimately celebrated, which is when it becomes embraced as part of the creative process.
Toleration – Acceptance – Celebration
I recognise that what Michelle teaches is the incredible power of adaptation; supporting those at her studio to remain open and fearless when challenged with the different or new. Having them experience for themselves how such openness can, when nurtured, lead to acceptance and celebration, teaches them that adaptation once incorporated ultimately provides benefit from the given change. Both the individual and the community grow as a consequence. Perhaps this accounts for how XDream Dance has managed to, not merely whether the barrage on business over the last two years yet come through it even stronger in terms of both raw numbers and support at her studio. Indeed, I came away from our meeting thinking there could be no greater gift, or more powerful lesson a teacher can give.
And so, acceptance and appreciation were the first qualities that Sam found at her studio; a group of friends, and a community that embraced her for who she was.
The next aspect that was key to Sam’s success was structure. The structure of the class, perhaps combined with the mostly non-verbal nature of dance classes, and the structure of preparing for a performance, all gave Sam a sense of stability and security; something she could plan around, locate herself in and develop within. To this day Sam still identifies that she greatly prefers and needs a clear structure.
Movement to music and the opportunity to perform were next listed by Sam, explaining that the addition of a strong theme or narrative helping connect her to the movement is really important. This in itself is not all that unusual, as it’s often the preference for many young dancers who prefer a strong external cue to provide purpose to their movement.
“It’s like we’re not talking, we’re expressing what we’re doing. For example: some of our routines have a theme behind them and we express using our whole body and face what the theme behind it is.” ~ Sam
Ironically, as much as Sam came to love moving to music, as it helped her to embrace, perhaps tame, or provide catharsis to the size of the emotions that swirled inside her, dance actually also requires an understanding of stillness and silence. Michelle and Linda describe the incredible transformation they witnessed in Sam as she grew from a young girl who couldn’t stand still at all, to slowly having the ability to hold herself in silence and stillness for periods of time, be it in class, or before and during a performance. Even today, during our interview Sam must consciously commit to holding herself still and struggles to make consistent eye contact.
Again, I was keen to get some understanding of what that experience is like for Sam. What does it feel like for her to her to hold still or make eye contact? I came to understand the incredible focus and will-power she’s learned over time; the mastery of self it requires of her, that most of us can likely barely fathom.
As an example of this Linda described how, when Sam was younger, she’d spend so much focus and energy on just trying to appear “normal”, to fit in during school hours, that she’d come home mentally and physically exhausted and as a consequence have a full melt down.
“It’s pretty hard to explain what’s changed over the years, but breathing exercises have really helped. Taking deep breaths in for 4 and out for 4, which I do a couple of times a day. Especially during the recent HSC period!”
I also explored with Sam her experience of making eye contact, which she describes as making her feel too vulnerable with strangers. As someone who has also finds many social contexts difficult, this seemed wholly understandable, as eye contact can often feel as though it’s either too intimate or too confrontational. Either way, something to be avoided except with those closest and most trusted.
It’s soon obvious while talking with Sam the tremendous force of emotions that lay barely contained, bubbling and brimming just under her skin. While such ready access to powerful emotions makes Sam a wonderful performer, Linda and Michelle recount that when Sam was younger, she’d perform a solo and while she did well, if she didn’t place and get the recognition she thought was coming, she’d start screaming offstage. She couldn’t fathom how, if she did all that was asked of her, perhaps ticked all the boxes provided, the corresponding result didn’t follow. Frustratingly, art isn’t math, and there’s rarely a result that can be easily broken down into objectively quantifiable elements. That’s often difficult for any young person to fully comprehend yet Sam’s Autism heightens such struggles.
Stop thinking about normal . . . You don’t have a big enough imagination for what your child can become. Johnny Seitz; autistic tightrope artists in the movie, Loving Lamposts: Living Autistic.
I was surprised to learn that for many years Michelle and Linda were tormented themselves, questioning whether putting Sam through the experience of performing was doing more harm than good. Wracked with love and doubt, Michelle even struggled with the thought; “are we torturing her?” Such was the toll it took on all involved to stay the course and keep believing in the power of the studio, of the culture they’d fostered, and perhaps of dance and the arts more broadly, to help support Sam’s journey.
And yet, in time Sam has learned to hold, manage and positively direct her emotions which has led to success both in dance and in the mainstream academic environment. In part, thanks to the structure and discipline that Sam encountered in the dance studio, combined with it being a place where she felt more relaxed due to the acceptance she experienced there, for the past three years she’s been able to attend classes in a mainstream school environment after being offered a place at Narrabeen Sports High through their dance program. And so again, dance served to help Sam’s story and path.
“I suppose we all have to learn to accept who we are; that we’re all a little bit different. And you can either be angry with it, and think, “I don’t want to be like this” or you can accept that this is who I am.” ~ Linda
And due to Sam’s skills in dance, and in other activities such as swimming, she’s been widely accepted by this school environment and has recently completed her HSC. Sam’s now awaiting her results with the aim of going to University in 2022, with plans to train to be a teacher. And while she’ll no doubt continue to occasionally battle normative stereotypes and the simplistic, negative judgements of people who’ve never bothered to take the time to understand her, or appreciate the value she has to offer, she now wants to pass on all she’s learned, working alongside children with Special Needs. I can think of no better example those young people could have.
Of course, in her immediate sights Sam and the dancers in the five Troupes who won at the recent Championships, are excited about heading to Florida in April 2022 for World’s. I asked Sam what most excites her and again the answer is multi-layered. First, she’s simply excited to get on a plane and travel and who can blame her after the previous two years we’ve had. Next, she just wants to enjoy the experience with her friends, being part of their lives, sharing another challenge and more incredible moments together, whatever the result of the competition. Finally, she’s thrilled for the chance to get n stage and be part of thousands of others from around the US and the world, representing not merely her Studio this time, but the Australian Nation.
This is Sam’s Story. It’s just getting started…
“It takes a village to raise a child. It takes a child with autism to raise the consciousness of the village.” ~ Elaine Hall
by Josef brown
Deepest appreciation to Samantha, Linda and Michelle for sharing their time and experiences.