Award-Winning Instructor Welcomes All Ability Levels to Dance Their Heart Out

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By day, Karen Medina is a dietician, and by night, she helps adults with special needs balance the physical, social, and emotional aspects of their lives through dance. Medina’s outreach into the special needs community has earned her a 2015 Maumee Valley Civitas Award for Community Involvement

While Medina has been involved in the area’s dance community for several decades, about six years ago she grew tired of the dance world’s cutthroat competition. “After all those years, I felt that I didn’t want to spend my time worrying about costumes and trophies and fights for first place. I thought there was something more I could do,” Medina reflected. 

Through the suggestion of a friend who works for the Lucas County Board of Developmental Disabilities, Medina became inspired to do more. Six years ago, she opened iDance Adaptive Performing Arts Studio, which now embraces nearly 100 students with physical and social challenge. From blindness and autism to Asperger Syndrome, Down Syndrome to Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders. The openess keeps the students coming to dance class and begging for more. And, Medina delivers, charging students a nominal $25 monthly fee which directly benefits iDance to keep the program grooving. 

Dancing for joy

Free-style hip-hop dance lessons and weekly dance parties allow students a chance to work on balance, coordination and spatial awareness. After gaining those structurally-important dance skills, the students have performed at several local events, including half-time at a University of Toledo basketball game.

In teaching the dance classes, Medina noted that her students didn’t move easily and freely, which led her to incorporate a gymnasium into the dance studio, made possible by private funds, volunteers and a donation from General Motors. “The students often work in very sedentary jobs, so they need activity. We work on activities and I think they would come five nights a week if they could! They really enjoy working with the dumbbells, weighted balls, and stretch bands, and it is great to see them last longer in the dance classes because of their increased strength and stamina,” says Medina. 

Drumming, singing & nutrition

Medina has also added a Drumfit class, where students tap on large balls as a way to develop cardio fitness. Students also come to iSing, a vocal group organized for those who find moving in a dance class too difficult. “Everyone can sing,” says Medina, “They don’t need to be able to balance themselves or have any physical stamina, but every one is able to sing something!”

Medina’s upcoming projects include a Nutrition Now program, where she will bring nutritional education to her students with help from Beth Williams, a registered dietitian and instructor at Owens Community College. “The students’ caregivers, who help with preparing their meals, will also be part of the class to make sure everyone involved gets the best information about the best foods to eat,” says Medina. 

Family involvement 

Taking the family approach, Medina’s two young sons, 11-year-old Ace and 9-year-old Cruz, assist in her work. She calls Ace her “tech guy,” noting that he runs the lights and sound for the dance classes. Cruz is responsible for watching his mom for the cues his older brother needs to make the necessary light and music changes. She says both boys are learning a lot about interacting with a variety of people and she is proud that they aren’t shy or nervous about working with special needs adults. 

“I am here to help and I find [my students] inspire me to keep on going,” says Medina. “My motto is ‘Step Forward’ and that’s what I’m going to do.”