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Special day for teens
Holiday dance gives special-needs students moments to remember
MHS DANCE1-2-14-14-LT
Sam West shows off his dance moves during the annual Valentines dance. - photo by HIME ROMERO

Curtiss Beyers was lured onto the dance floor by the opening beat of the opening number of Thursday’s special-needs Valentine’s Day Dance.

If The Jackson 5 were indeed calling out to the crowd with its iconic song “I Want You Back,” they need not ask Beyers twice. 

This much we know about the energetic Manteca High freshman, who can sing in seven different languages: He is no wallflower.

As the autistic savant shuffled about the gymnasium floor, wearing a toothy smile and red boutonnière, the party followed him, cascading onto the dance floor.

A pack of girls hopped in unison, their ponytails bouncing along with the beat.

Dino Holmes plopped down on his knees in front of the deejay, strumming his air guitar as he lost himself in the moment. He played himself onto his back and then onto his feet again, finishing with his right-hand raised to the rafters.

Others didn’t need dance or theatrics to command the spotlight.

Dajon Craft was the king of cool with his hands folded together in his lap as he slow-stepped onto the floor, surrounded by ladies.

The Stockton native was perhaps the best-dressed lad in Manteca High’s small gym, donning a black suit with black-rimmed glasses and a striking red shirt. 

Dances are often a pinnacle moment in the life of a teenager and young adult, but those moments haven’t always been afforded to those with special needs and severe handicaps like Beyers, Holmes and Craft.

“They usually don’t get involved in the regular stuff at school, like Prom and other dances,” said Stone, a longtime special-needs instructor at Manteca High and fourth-year coordinator of this countywide dance. “This is their time to shine and be themselves; to get out of the box that is the classroom.”

Stone is credited with much of the event’s sustained success. In 2009, he transitioned it from an after-school event with dwindling participation (because of a lack of transportation and parent chaperones) to that of a mid-day gala routinely visited by programs in five cities.

Now, students arrive with their teachers and aides, all of whom are more than eager to tag along.

Many of them made great dance partners on Thursday. One of the ladies that accompanied Craft on the dance floor is an instructor with the San Joaquin County Office of Education. She helped him communicate with sign language, acting as an interpreter. 

The difference in turnout, Stone says, has been stark. On Thursday, approximately 170 students, teachers and aides from all corners of the San Joaquin County map descended upon Manteca High for an afternoon of beats and treats. 

They enjoyed a catered lunch, hosted by the Manteca High Leadership students and Club Connect, collected raffle prizes and posed for pictures against a red-and-white backdrop.

More than anything, though, they danced, gigging out to a playlist created by Sierra High’s Rick Hammarstrom.

Boy, did they dance.

When Katie Perry’s “Roar” reached its crescendo – “I am a champion and you’re going to hear me roar” – the crowd burst into applause, begging the DJ for more.

The energy and joy was real and contagious. They moved and interacted with one another without inhibition, without fear of being judged or laughed at, without concern of contracting a single “cootie.” 

While this was, by definition, a high school dance, this much was clear to both Hammarstrom and Stone, who huddled behind the speakers: This was no ordinary high school dance.

Where were the wallflowers? Where were the long stretches of empty dance floor? Even during the lunch break, students kept the floor alive. 

 “This is good for them. I’ve heard some teachers say they’ve never seen them so excited,” Stone said. “The movement and music stimulates them. It helps them mentally and physically to go get out of the classroom and enjoy the camaraderie of other students.

“You can see it in their body language.”

From the opening beat of the opening song.