Angel With The Blue Dress, Blue Dress, Blue Dress, Angel With The Blue Dress On – Story written by Ken Westgate Jr. 7/29/2016 © This story is based on my actual experience as a graduate student in Rehabilitation Counseling at the University of Scranton during the 1971-1972 school year.

We sat nervously in a circle around the very large and stately room in the old mansion in the University section of Scranton, Pennsylvania. I was part of a group of graduate Rehabilitation Counseling students from the University that had been recruited to assist with a new dance therapy program for children and young adults with a variety of mental and physical disorders. We had all been through the basic orientation and training program for participation in this new therapy venture, but possibly with the exception of myself, none of my fellow students had formal ballroom dancing training. I wasn’t worried about the dance aspect of the program, but I was definitely nervous about my assignment of a dance partner for the program.

The program director, Mrs. Patterson, walked into the middle of the room, and we all sat up straighter in our folding chairs. She scanned the room slowly and then addressed the group indicating that our dance partners were assembling in an adjacent room and that she would be making assignments as they walked into the room one at a time. She would ask us to come and meet her and our dance partner in the center of the room, bow or courtsey politely and then stand with our partner just inside the ring of folding chairs, allowing room for each couple as they were announced. After this brief procedural introduction, she motioned to an aide in the adjoining room and called forth the first partner from the other room. It didn’t take me long to figure out that she had decided to make the assignments based on the last name of the counseling students in the room. That meant I would be the last to receive my partner.

Now my nervousness increased substantially, realizing that my partner would be the last to appear, and we would be the last to fill the circle before the instruction started.

At last, I was called forward and she motioned to the aide in the other room to send in the last participant. A young girl about fifteen or sixteen years of age emerged from the room wearing a beautiful blue chiffon dress. I could tell by her slight limp and two different size shoes that she had some form of physical disability. She was wearing rather thick-lensed glasses, had white gloves, and a small faux pearl bracelet on her right wrist. Her long straight blond hair hung over her shoulders held in place by a thin blue headband. As she reached the center of the circle, I bowed politely and she curtsied in response. Mrs. Patterson introduced me to Angela and she would be my dance partner for the therapy sessions each week. I had been looking at the Program Director but caught Angela looking me over out of the corner of my eye as if to be sure that I met with her approval. When I turned to look at her she suddenly averted her blue-green eyes and looked at the floor. She didn’t take her eyes off the floor until the dance session began.

The Program Director asked all of the graduate students to kindly fold up the chairs and place them against the wall so we could begin the dance instruction. Using the aide as her partner, she gave some instructions to all of us and demonstrated the moves she wanted us all to repeat. She then walked over to the record player in the corner of the room and turned it on and placed the needle on the track she wanted us to dance to. As the music started she clapped her hands twice and we began moving slowly in the fashion she had shown us. It was a very slow waltz, with the same one, two, three rhythms, but not quite so fluid a set of movements. The pattern was an easy one for all of us to follow.

We had not danced more than a minute or two when Angela suddenly called out, “Mrs. Patterson, he is coming into my dance space.” I was startled but realized that I was a bit too close because I was used to a more fluid and faster pace to dancing the waltz. The whole group stopped abruptly and looked over at me. I am sure I blushed at least four shades of red, and profusely apologized to everyone in the room and especially to Angela. “I will try not to do that again”, I said reassuringly.

We began dancing again, and things seemed to be better. We took a brief break and Mrs. Patterson showed us how to help our partners do some lite stretching movements to help with their movement. I steadied Angela as she moved somewhat awkwardly through these stretching movements. We resumed dancing after a few minutes of stretching. In order to help those individuals with mental retardation, Mrs. Patterson felt it would be good to repeat the same pattern of dancing and stretching throughout the evening’s session. We had done this about four more times, when I heard Angela’s strong clear voice ring out again. “Mrs. Patterson, he is in my dance space again, and he said he wouldn’t do that any more, make him stop please.” I blushed crimson and apologized to everyone and especially to Angela again. I told her that I was used to doing a slightly different type of ballroom dancing where occasionally the lead dancer would move a bit closer to his partner in order to execute a move a bit more precisely and smoothly. She looked directly at me, and said “I don’t know about any of that, I just know Mrs. Patterson showed us what our dance space distance should be and you keep getting too close to me.” “Angela, I will work harder to do exactly what Mrs. Patterson taught you and us, this is our first time doing this and I suppose I am not as prepared as I should be. I really will try not to do that again. She looked straight into my eyes with a most piercing glance and replied, “Well since it is our first night, I guess I can forgive you this time.” Thank you so much Angela, I will definitely try to do better for the rest of the night and the rest of the sessions.” She didn’t say anything else, only waited to see if Mrs. Patterson was going to start the music again. Instead Mrs. Patterson said, “We will do one more stretching exercise for tonight and call it an evening.” “Thank you class, and Mr. Westgate will you please stay after the others leave for a few moments.” I nodded politely and we commenced with the stretching activity. When we were done we thanked our partners and then they all headed back into the adjoining room for some refreshments before heading off to their rooms.

I stayed and waited for the others to leave. “Mr. Westgate, please grab us some chairs and lets sit and talk for a few minutes.” “I am very glad you are here, Mr. Westgate”, she began, “and your dance experience makes it very easy for you to learn the movements I am trying to use to help your partner learn how to manage their body movements better. Angela is a bit of a perfectionist I am afraid. When she came to us, she was a very lonely and rigid girl locked inside this very controlled box in which everything had to be precisely the way she thought it should be.

She had been mistreated a lot and had gone through many surgeries to help her succeed in walking better. She has, as you may have guessed a form of Cerebral Palsy and has some mild learning disabilities as well. There also seems to be some signs of autism, although we really feel a lot of her emotional control and distancing is how she learned to handle the pain of being abused and neglected in her early childhood. I also think she is struggling with her adolescence. She understands her body is changing and apparently somewhere along the way she has been told that older boys will try to hurt her when this happens. The fact that you have grown up with and around disabled children and worked with them previously is a great asset to working with her. I know you will be patient with her and give her time to adjust. When she shouts out like that, just relax and let her have her moment. I will speak with her about how she can let me know she is concerned without embarrassing you and disrupting the lessons. Please don’t give up and stay the course with us.” “I will Mrs. Patterson, I can see a lot of potential in Angela, and I will do my best to help her realize that”, I replied. “Thank you Mr. Westgate, and I look forward to seeing you on Thursday.” “You can count on me, Mrs. Patterson, I will be there.”

When I arrived for the second session of the week on Thursday, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was hoping Angela would be in a more forgiving mood if I forgot myself and got too close. I had to remember that she had this idea that as an older boy I was somehow a potential danger to her, and she was taking a huge risk allowing me to even hold her hand and place my hand gently on her back to lead her through the dance movements. The evening started as it had before. Mrs. Patterson was a strong believer in repeating patterns of movement to reinforce what the participants needed to learn and improve their motor skills. After the pairings and greetings, we took our places on the dance floor and started with the same dance steps, but with a different song playing. It had the same slow pace as before. I consciously worked to be sure I kept the proper distance from Angela. She was wearing her beautiful blue chiffon dress again, but this time she had a small silver cross necklace on. She seemed oblivious to the fact that she commanded that her subtle beauty commanded the attention of everyone when she entered the room.

Both the dancing and the stretching that night went without a shouting incident. At one point, however, Angela stopped dancing, looked at me and excused herself to go talk with Mrs. Patterson. After talking with her for a few minutes she returned and took up the starting dance position and asked me to continue. She didn’t say anything to me and I thought everything had gone very well until I heard Mrs. Patterson ask to speak to me again after the others had left. I was really worried, perhaps she had asked Mrs. Patterson for another dance partner, or even asked that I not return. Mrs. Patterson smiled and reassured me that Angela was just doing what she had told her to do if she was upset over something I was doing. She had been instructed to quietly excuse herself, go report the concern to Mrs. Patterson, and Mrs. Patterson would help her work out a solution to her concern. Apparently, Angela had been concerned that I was getting into her space again, and while it only happened once, she was sure I had promised her it would not happen again, and it did. She was confused about whether she should trust what I was saying to her if I couldn’t follow the rules about keeping out of her dance space. Mrs. Patterson had assured her that I was a very good dancer and that I had learned a different way to do the steps we were practicing, and sometimes I might forget myself and go back to what I had learned previously.

She gave Angela an example of something they had been working on where Angela had gone back to using an old behavior instead of using the new one they were working on. Angela acknowledged she understood and returned to dancing with me. Mrs. Patterson felt that Angela was showing growth in that she followed her instructions and thought that she would handle the situation differently the next time we had dance therapy session.

The following Tuesday we were back for our third session. I really hoped this one would go much better. To my great surprise, it did. To my greater surprise when I did forget and stepped a bit too close Angela simply stopped dancing, dropped her hands to her side, looked me in the eyes and said, “I guess you went back to doing things the old way again, Mrs. Patterson says that sometimes we do that. She calls it a habit, and she says it is hard to break. I have some habits that are hard for me to break, I guess you do too.” I was stunned and simply stood there staring at her for a moment. Without further discussion, she simply took the dance-ready pose and said that I could begin again. That was the only time it happened that evening, but I was astounded. This time it was my turn to ask if Mrs. Patterson could stay a few minutes after the session was over so I could talk to her about what had happened. She smiled as I relayed the experience to her and then responded, “ We have been practicing for the past four days away for Angela to communicate her feeling to you and for her to understand how she sometimes does the same thing. She actually grasped it quicker than we had thought possible, but that is what we love about Angela, she surprises us all the time.”

There were to be sixteen sessions or eight weeks altogether in this pilot program. Most of the time we concentrated on simple waltz and foxtrot type steps because they were repetitive and could be adapted to different music tempos to help the students who were struggling more with the movements. The stretching gradually got more intensive so as to help the participants gain greater flexibility. Fortunately, by the fourth session, I had really worked on changing my own approach to the dancing and was not getting into Angela’s dance space any longer. She actually smiled at me at the end of the fifth session and was much more relaxed and fluid when we reached the final four sessions.

When we entered the final four sessions Mrs. Patterson decided she wanted to try a modified version of the “Cha, Cha, Cha”. She wanted to do this to help the students work on balance when moving backward and forward to the beat of the music. While the pace was slower as before, the dance movements were the same as in a normal Cha, Cha Cha. This backward and forward pattern was a real problem for all the participants at first. There were a lot of stumbles and quite a few steadied falls during the thirteenth and fourteenth sessions, but by the end of the fifteenth session no one fell and there were only a few stumbles. Angela had mastered the movement by the fifteenth session and was moving quite fluidly to the music. She seemed to really like this dance step and at the end of that session I asked Angela and Mrs. Patterson if we could have a few moments after the session was over. Angela seemed concerned and looked worried that I was going to say something bad about her. Mrs. Patterson took her hand and they stood facing me. “Mrs Patterson, I said, “I think Angela could do this dance at a faster pace. She knows the steps very well and has not stumbled once. I think she should be given an opportunity to feel what this dance is really like. I am confident she can do this. I think she is a beautiful dancer.” Mrs. Patterson looked at Angela and asked her if she wanted to try. Angela leaned close to Mrs. Patterson and whispered something in her ear. Mrs. Patterson smiled and said, “Yes Dear he did say that.” Angela smiled the biggest I had ever seen her smile and she looked at me and said, “Can you please show me how, Mr. Westgate.” I asked Mrs. Patterson if she had a bit faster version of the music she had used and she said she would put on a record that did, and that I should explain to Angela how this was going to work, while she did that. “Angela, you don’t have to be worried or scared of falling. I would never let you hurt yourself, and I would never hurt you. You already know the steps, you just need to let me lead you and guide you so you can go a bit faster. I have to tell you that I will be getting a bit closer to you so I can steady you as we move faster. I may even hold you just a bit tighter so that you won’t lose your balance, but I need you to trust me, that I will not hurt you, I am just trying to help you feel this dance the way it was meant to be danced.” “I do,” she said. I wasn’t sure exactly what she meant, but whatever it meant she simply took the starting dance pose and waited for me to take her hand and place my hand on her back, Then we both listened for the music to start. I didn’t begin the dance right away I just let Angela hear the music first for a few minutes. “Do you hear how the music moves faster,” I asked. “Yes, I do” she said. “Okay, now lets trying moving together to that rhythm,” I added. She steadied herself and we began to move and count together.

As we moved around the dance floor together, just the two of us, she seemed to be deep in focus on the music and the pattern. She appeared to be looking at me but was rather I think looking inside of her to find what she needed to make this happen and to feel the dance the way it was meant to be danced. When the music stopped, she looked into my eyes and said, “Again, please”. I nodded toward Mrs. Patterson, who put the music back on and we danced through the music another time, and then another, and then another. After the end of the sixth time, Mrs. Patteson said, “Angela, I am so sorry you were so lovely tonight and your dancing was amazing, unfortunately, you will be late for your evening bedtime routine and we need to keep you on schedule, so please thank Mr. Westgate now.” Angela had not let go of my hand when the music stopped. I hadn’t really noticed until I looked down to see it still comfortably in mine. I said, “Thank you, Angela, I had such a wonderful time dancing with you tonight, I am looking forward to our next session.” I didn’t want to say last session, not only so that Angela wouldn’t be sad but also so I didn’t have to think about this pilot program ending.

As I left the session that night a light rain was falling. I did my own version of “Singing in the Rain” as I danced and sang my way back to my dorm room. I am sure there were a lot of stares from others I passed on the street, but I was just full of joy and couldn’t contain it. I have no idea how Angela felt that night, but I hoped that she was feeling some of the same.

The sixteenth and final session in the eight-week pilot program came all too abruptly for me. Mrs. Patterson had prepared the participants ahead of time that they would not be having these classes for a while and that when they resumed it might be with other partners. We were all asked to dress up that evening. The men and boys were expected to come in coat and tie, and the women and girls in dresses. Angela was wearing her blue dress as usual but tonight she was wearing a small gold necklace with a star hanging from the middle and had a flowered ribbon in her hair. Everything stayed with the pattern it had all along so that there was a consistency in the program. We did the dance steps and the stretching exercises. Instead of using the bulk of the 90-minute session that evening, Mrs. Patterson stopped about 10 minutes early. “I have a wonderful surprise for you all tonight”, she said. Several of the participants anxiously asked what it was as she gave an intended pause to let the suspense grow. “Tonight we are going to have a special demonstration of how to do the “Cha, Cha, Cha” the way it was meant to be danced”.

She gave another dramatic pause and said, “Mr. Westgate and his dance partner Angela will demonstrate this for us.” I had no idea this was coming but Angela obviously did because before Mrs. Patterson had finished announcing that we were to do this demonstration, Angela was already on the dance floor waiting for me to come and take the starting position with her. When I arrived at the spot, she smiled shyly, and said, “We can do this Mr. Westgate, We can do this.” “Yes we can Angela, Yes we can,” I replied smiling back at her. Mrs. Patterson went to the record player and the music began. I didn’t start the lead right away, giving Angela a moment to get the feel for the rhythm and then we started out across the dance floor. We danced flawlessly for the group as they applauded loudly. When the music stopped there was a chorus of “Again, Again”. I nodded and we did the dance again. When that one was finished we bowed to more applause and more chants for “Again, Again”. Mrs. Patterson turned off the record player and clapped again. “Unfortunately ladies and gentlemen our time has come to a close. I would like to give you a few moments to say goodnight to your partners and thank them for their dedication to these sessions.” Angela had not let go of my hand, and as Mrs. Patterson finished speaking she pulled on my hand until I was standing directly in front of her. She looked into my eyes and I could see that there were tears forming in hers. I could see that there was a strong emotion growing inside of her. She began to sob and fell forward wrapping her arms around me. She could barely get the words out, “Thank you, please don’t leave me!, please don’t go!” “Oh, Angela, I said, with tears welling up in my own eyes, you don’t know how much I wish I could stay and dance with you again, but Mrs. Patterson has said that she has other plans for this program.” “If I am able I will certainly stop by and try to visit with you, but I don’t know if Mrs. Patterson will approve of that.” “She didn’t say any more, she just clung to me and cried softly as others started to leave the room. “One more dance please, she finally blurted out after everyone else had left the room.” Mrs. Patterson had been watching from the other side of the room, and without speaking put the record player back on and started the music again. I handed Angela my handkerchief and she wiped her eyes. She handed the handkerchief back to me and I placed it my pocket and then she took the starting dance pose as the music continued to play.

That was the last dance I ever had with Angela, and it was unfortunately by agency policy the last time I was permitted to see her. I will never forget the Angel with the Blue Dress on and what she taught me about dancing.

Technology Applications:

  1. Students can sometimes teach us more than we teach them, even when they are identified as “special needs” students. Angela taught me that despite her obvious challenges she was very capable of learning and learning much more than outward appearances would have dictated. We need to be aware that our students often have more experience with the technology we are using then we do and we need to be open to what they can teach us. We need to welcome their instruction and sharing their knowledge instead of trying so hard to control them and the technology they are using. We need to stay open to what they are saying to us through their verbal and non-verbal communication. Let us graciously and openly learn to learn with and from each other.
  2. We need to see the beauty in the world around us. Angela was often oblivious to her own beauty. She was often so wrapped up in her fear that she was unable to see how truly wonderful and beautiful she was. The technology tools we have open up new ways to explore the beauty of the world around us and help our students grapple constructively and creatively with the ugliness in our world as well. Let us work together to provide more opportunities for us to explore the beauty in our world and spend less time focusing on its ugliness.
  3. When students sometime break through their bottled up emotions and express those feelings and emotions in ways that challenge our classroom organization and discipline, let us remember that sometimes we also have need of the opportunity to express ourselves in times of intense emotions. When our students do this using technology instead of face to face interactions, we need to guide them to check themselves before they deliver a message to someone else that could be damaging to them or to others. Teaching them how to be good digital citizens in critical to their overall effective and appropriate use of technology.
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