The audience showered praise after watching "Speaking with Hands", the maiden production of Diverse Abilities Dance Collective (DADC), in Singapore recently.
"Heart moving", "inspiring", "fabulous" and "magical" were some of the words expressed.
DADC is a community initiative by Maya Dance Theatre (MDT) launched in June last year.
It is the brainchild of Kavitha Krishnan, the artistic director of MDT who is a trained occupational therapist with experience in mental health and special needs.
The passionate bharathanatyam dancer, who has worked with the Down Syndrome Association Singapore (DSA) and other community organisations as a dance trainer, said DADC was created to give artistes a greater sense of ownership.
Its main goal is to generate holistic growth opportunities for people with or without disabilities to dance on a semi-professional level in an environment where they can interact and learn from each other.
It also aims to empower students by developing skills and employability.
The first batch of DADC members is mainly from DSA.
They practice every week under Subastian Tan and Eva Tey (both trained in bharathanatyam under Kavitha), Lakshmi Krishnan (Temple of Fine Arts) and Ajith Bhaskar.
This equips them with an understanding of bharatanatyam movements and ideas which are then translated into creative movements.
They are also trained to do administrative work and wardrobe management. Some are involved in teaching dance and mentoring members. Three DSA dancers are gainfully employed on a part-time basis.
According to Kavitha, bharathanatyam helps the students find balance through different leg positions and creates better hand-eye coordination.
Dancing helps broaden their shoulders, extend their limbs and strengthens muscles that they normally don't use.
It also promotes health and wellness while nudging the students to explore dance in ways that are stimulating, creative and fun.
The team has performed at various platforms such as the Shatanjali Festival of the Arts and Lisha's Women's Wing.
"Our students look cute and childlike but they are young adults and we would like the world to look at them as such and give them respect," said Subastian, the programme leader at DADC.
Subastian looks upon his role as a leader, friend and mentor to the differently-abled.
Sharing how "Speaking with Hands" came about, he said: "We realised that hand gestures were a great way to communicate. Instead of using words, dance became the language of communication. We worked with the DADC dancers to test drive this idea."
Australian award-winning choreographer Liz Lea, a trained bharathanatyam and kalaripayattu dancer, came to Singapore twice and the students greatly benefited from her intensive training workshops.
Subastian is inspired by the students' passion to push their dance ability further.
The 24-year-old, who is majoring in psychology while spearheading the DADC, explains how the success of this venture has buoyed the team.
"Now that we are comfortable and more experienced we are willing to open the space to other organisations and individuals - both able and differently-abled," he said.
He added that they are motivated to keep up the good work because of the positive outcome - most of the dancers seem more connected and happier.
The talented Jaspreet Kaur, who has Down Syndrome, would keep her fists clenched and arms close to her body, but over time she has started extending her limbs, opening up her arms, and her personality has blossomed.
Judith, another student with Down Syndrome, would not move too much. But her father recently told Subastian that he has noticed a change as she is less shy and makes more eye contact.
Positive and encouraging feedback has spurred DADC to take on more projects.
Several performances are being planned over the next few months.
DADC with MDT will perform at the Saarang Festival in Chennai on Jan 9 under the artistic direction of Kavitha.
The team - June Lin, Jaspreet, Arassi Rajkumar, Hee Yuan Sheng, Eva, Weng Jiaying, Subastian and Imran Manaff (manager) will also carry out exchanges with community groups such as the Down Syndrome Federation of India.
Kavitha is blessed with a strong team that believes in her and is grateful for the help that she receives from guest performers and trainers.
DADC has also received support from Tote Board, SG Enable, National Arts Council and National Youth Council, among others.
To know more about DADC or support it, please write to email@example.com
It can also be reached via Facebook at facebook.com/DADC or Instagram @dadcsg
"Our students look cute and childlike but they are young adults and we would like the world to look at them as such and give them respect."
- Programme leader at DADC Subastian Tan