This Organization Is Bringing Dance to Hospitalized Children

February 28, 2021

Dancin Power’s first student refused to dance. Morg’Ann was a teenager with a chronic illness who had been in the hospital for three months. “She looked at me and said, ‘I’m not going to dance; I’m in a wheelchair,’ ” remembers Dancin Power founder Vania Deonizio.

But Deonizio is not one to give up. She asked Morg’Ann if she could just show her the dance instead, and proceeded to put on a high-energy Carnival song from Brazil. “After I was done, she was like, ‘Well, I’m not going to dance, but can you play that song again—and do those moves again?’ ” says Deonizio. “Next thing I see, she’s dancing along.”

Morg’Ann ended up dancing with Deonizio every single day for the next eight months while in the hospital. Today, 15 years later, Morg’Ann is one of more than 80 instructors trained by Dancin Power to teach dance in children’s hospitals.

Vania Deonizio started Dancin Power in March 2006 at what’s now the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in Oakland, California. She’d discovered the power of dance while growing up in Brazil, when it helped her recover from her own personal trauma. After moving to the United States as an adult, she taught dance in public schools, and noticed the major difference it could have in her students’ lives.

One day, while riding her bike to work, she passed the children’s hospital, and saw it as a sign. “It was one of those moments when life is trying to communicate with you,” she says. Deonizio stopped and asked if they had any dance programs for the patients, offering herself as a volunteer. “They didn’t call me crazy, but they said this was not the place for dancing,” she says. There were too many safety concerns, and no support for such a program.

Deonizio called back once a month for eight months to see if she could get ahold of someone with an open mind. Eventually, she came up with a plan: Fluent in Portuguese, Spanish and English, she applied for an entry-level position at the hospital’s emergency registration admission department. When she got hired, she learned her way around the hospital bureaucracy and found out that the child life department was responsible for nonclinical programs.

She pitched her idea to those in charge, and eventually secured permission to teach one class—while supervised—during her lunchtime. That one-on-one session with Morg’Ann showed not only that Deonizio could safely create and adapt choreography, but also how much dance could improve a patient’s quality of life.

Dancin Power has now reached more than 19,000 children and their families at seven children’s hospitals across the country. Classes are 100-percent free, funded by donations from the community.

San Francisco Ballet corps member Ludmila Bizalion went through the training in 2018. “We learned the philosophy and how to teach in a hospital, how to talk to patients, what the emergency codes mean, how not to tangle IV cords, how to make the movement as inclusive as possible,” she says. She ended up teaching every Monday until it became too much to juggle with her work schedule and being a new mom, and she now works on virtual programming as a member of the board of directors.

“As a dancer, our careers are so self-centered,” Bizalion says. “We’re always trying to better ourselves, looking in mirrors. This work is 1,000 percent about another person. Just to be able to bring that to the hospital and help kids have fun and feel free for a little bit feels amazing.”

Rather than following standardized routines, teachers draw from their own dance backgrounds—in everything from hip hop to flamenco, salsa, Korean dance, jazz and tap. “Everything can be adjusted to meet the patient where they are,” says Deonizio, mentioning both physical and emotional restrictions. “We want them to feel empowered.”

The teachers lead small group classes of up to 12 people, as well as one-on-one bedside sessions, depending on a patient’s condition. Their families—and even doctors and nurses—are encouraged to join. “In a hospital setting there are so many numbers and exams and their vitals, sometimes these children feel defined by their condition,” says Bizalion. “When you have the chance to get them out of that mentality, it’s life-changing.” Dancing together gives families a rare chance to connect in a nonmedical way.

Although Deonizio recently received her master’s degree in counseling and psychology with an emphasis in expressive arts therapy, Dancin Power’s classes are not dance/movement therapy—they simply tap into the naturally therapeutic powers of dance itself. Rather than a targeted treatment, it’s an activity that helps kids feel like kids again.

Health providers attest to not only improved mobility, but also to how Dancin Power improves patients’ moods and helps them open up emotionally. “I’ve been working at Children’s Hospital for 40 years, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a program that has been so liberating for these kids,” shared registered nurse Diane Oviatt in a statement about Dancin Power.

Now coming up on its 15-year anniversary, the organization is celebrating by launching a new campaign this month called Dance Is for EVERYBODY to provide adaptive dance lessons virtually for children with disabilities, whether they’re hospitalized or at home.

However they’re reaching students, Deonizio notes that kids often feel skeptical when they’re first asked to dance. “Dancing can be intimidating, but as soon as the music starts, it brings them to connect with who they are: kids,” she says. “The look on a child’s face, and their parents’, before and after a Dancin Power session, never ceases to amaze. To know that a simple act can help change their days makes all the hard work we do worth it.”