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Adults with disabilities face a variety of challenges, but an organization called Pyramid helps them reach their full potential. Andrea Ames, director of Pyramid’s Tampa location, music and dance play an integral therapeutic role. Those elements are combined with other art forms to give Pyramid clients diverse ways in which to express themselves. Andrea shared how Pyramid’s Performing Arts Coordinator, Terry Cone, helps them hone their abilities, improve their physical and social skills, and even publicly share their talents.

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How did Pyramid get started, and how long have you been working in the Tampa area?

Pyramid began in 1994 as the brainchild of Marilyn Yon, her husband Bill Fuller, and their financial partner, Mark Kemp. Ms. Yon has been involved in serving individuals with developmental disabilities since her teens and helped close down some of the large scale institutions in Florida in the 1970s and transition those residents into community based settings.

Ms. Yon and Mr. Fuller were interested in exploring what could happen if people with developmental disabilities were exposed to the visual and performing arts rather than the usual model of piece work and sheltered workshops which were more common at the time. They opened their first program in Tallahassee, Florida and expanded into Pensacola, Panama City and Fort Walton Beach soon after. They opened the Tampa location in 1998.

How does Pyramid use the arts to enrich its clients’ lives?

As an organization, Pyramid serves a diverse population of over 700 students with a wide range of abilities across the state of Florida. Students of all levels and backgrounds love the arts and have responded in amazing ways! We have many stories of students who were never exposed to the arts before coming here and going on to sell art regularly at gallery shows and community events. We have performers who used to be too shy to speak above a whisper who are now given lead roles in their program’s annual performances. We believe the arts is a way to transform our students lives and allow them and their loved ones to see themselves as a person with a desired skill or talent rather than a person with a disability.

In the visual arts we participate in our neighborhood Seminole Heights First Fridays gallery hop events and as well as other local arts events and sell student artwork, jewelry and crafts with 50% of the sale going to the artist and the other 50% going back into the program for supplies.

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In the performing arts we hold two large scale showcase performances twice a year—once in the summer and once in December—that draw an audience of over 300! Our performers receive a stipend for their efforts as a part of our fundraising. Our next showcase is going to be held on Sunday December 13, 2015, at the University Area Community Center, doors open at 2 p.m. for the art show and the performance starts at 3 p.m.

How is dance incorporated into Pyramid’s work?

Dance is a very important element in our services. Our Performing Arts Coordinator, Terry Cone has been extremely innovative in her teaching of wheelchair dance classes for students who utilize wheelchairs. Dancers must memorize complex routines with serpentines and spins as well as accommodating stand up dancers into the routines. We also offer dance classes for students who do not use a wheelchairs and those routines require the same high level of dedication and practice. She has a great working relationship with Susan Taylor Lennon of the University of Tampa and we have had the pleasure of partnering her UT dance students with one of our wheelchair dancers at our last three performances. It is truly incredible to watch the graceful fluidity of these two as they dance across the stage. You actually almost forget that the dancer is in a wheelchair.

Ms. Cone feels it is very important to expose her dance students to other professionals and she and her students were participants in the recent VSA Mixed Abilities Dance Symposium held at USF in October. Our dance students are exposed to many different styles of dance ranging from ballet to hip hop to modern dance and everything in between.

What are the specific benefits of using dance?

Dance students learn discipline, memorization, develop fine and gross motor skills and increased self-confidence. They also learn how to accept criticism and guidance from Ms. Cone on a professional level. Dance students also learn the valuable skill of collaborating with their peers to achieve a common goal. This group of students is very close knit and supportive with each other. During performances students learn to keep dancing even if something goes wrong, backstage etiquette and cues, lighting, sounds, makeup and costumes and everything else that goes into pulling off a large scale performance. Many of our students can build on the skills they develop through dance in other areas such as working in the community and reducing problematic behaviors such as aggression and outbursts.

How do the clients respond to the program? What do they seem to like best about it?

Our dance and performing arts students love performing more than anything else. They look forward to getting onstage in front of a supportive audience and getting positive feedback from their peers and loved ones. They have shown that they are growing each year in their skills and their dedication to their craft. They also value the social roles that dance and performing offers them, they have friendships with their fellow performers, other students look up to them as role models and their families are often proud and impressed as they watch them onstage.

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Barbara Nefer is a freelance writer covering all things Orlando Her work can be found on Examiner.com.