CANONSBURG – Tears streamed down the flushed cheeks of Karen Bender the first time she watched her daughter, Crystal, dance solo on stage.
It was a defining moment for the Washington teen, who had struggled most of her life to achieve a sense of belonging, and one that Karen doubted would ever happen.
“The transformation was amazing. She’s come a long way,” Karen recalled during one of her daughter’s recent rehearsals at Synergy School of Artistic Dance by Roz in Canonsburg.
“When she first started dancing, for years she would always put herself in the back of the class. When she was younger, she wouldn’t talk to anyone without me,” Karen said. “I’m amazed she has no stage fright at all. She’s gone from being socially awkward to being a social butterfly. Now she wants to be in everything.”
“Why not? Why wait?” Crystal quickly adds.
Crystal, 18, was diagnosed four years ago with autism. Karen said the diagnosis finally helped explain the myriad behavioral problems her daughter had as a youngster. As a result, Crystal attended a private school, Holy Family Learning Center, through eighth grade, and she took speech classes as well.
Doctors also said Crystal’s movement would be limited because she has some physical issues as well, primarily low muscle tone and pain in her legs.
But through medication, maturity and compassionate mentors and peers, Crystal has been able to overcome many of those issues and is developing into a confident young woman, both in the dance studio and at Trinity High School. She specializes in jazz and hip-hop, and her bubbly personality is accompanied by infectious laughter.
“I’m going to be a star,” Crystal said without the slightest hint of bravado. “Nothing ever stops me. Everything I do, I give 110 percent.”
Her attitude does not surprise Rosalynn Cruz, who is known as Roz to her students at Synergy.
“That’s very typical in the arts,” Roz said. “We teach so much more than movements. We teach confidence, poise and grace.”
Crystal began dancing eight years ago with the Joyce Ellis Dancers in an attempt, her mother said, to channel her talent and high energy in a more positive direction. “With her being autistic, she would dance inappropriately” while trying to mimic singers on television, Karen said. “If she could dance 24 hours a day, she would.”
Joyce’s teaching style not only helped Crystal modify her dancing technique, but also encouraged Crystal to engage in conversations with her peers.
“Joyce made students introduce themselves to each other, and tell each other something about themselves,” Karen said. “Crystal would not have initiated it.”
That’s how Crystal met Amy Russell. It wasn’t long before the girls began to develop a friendship – a friendship that followed them both to Synergy, where Amy is a student as well as an instructor in Roz’s Synergy Sidekicks program.
“Synergy Sidekicks is a program I developed because of Crystal,” Roz said. “I wanted her to be more than just one of many students. I wanted the kids to take her under their wing, and that no matter what class Crystal goes in, keep an eye out for her.
“They are patient and ready to work with her. We have a couple kids who are diagnosed with disorders, and it’s very important for the other kids to understand their own peers have things going on.”
Amy, also 18, is a senior at McGuffey High School. She works one-on-one with Crystal, which has only served to strengthen the bond they share.
“Amy is a student who has shown me time and time again she is mature,” Roz said. “She says, ‘I want to be good. I have dreams.’ That kind of kid for a teacher is like candy. I stepped out of the picture. She knew my expectations. She works well with Crystal. It’s a beautiful thing, a student-on-student mentor. I think it’s good for Crystal, not just to have Amy as a teacher, but a peer.”
It hasn’t always been easy. Crystal occasionally tests Amy’s patience, and during a recent rehearsal, Crystal was easily distracted by visitors in the studio.
Still, Amy enjoys working with Crystal and says it’s been a good learning experience for her as well. In the fall, Amy will attend Western Michigan University to major in dance and business management, with the hope of performing in “Sesame Street Live” or on a cruise ship.
“Working with Crystal, I was challenging myself to be the teacher she needs for getting her from point B to point A,” said Amy, who, for the record, enjoys choreographing routines more than teaching. “It’s been a learning process about what I can expect from her. She’s done better over the years. The big difference is if you say something once, it clicks.”
Amy’s support has been unconditional and goes well beyond the studio. During Crystal’s first competitive solo performance, Amy stood on stage and performed the dance moves alongside Crystal. Now, Amy stands off to the side.
“It’s been good. It’s definitely impacted me,” said Amy, who is president of the National Honor Society at McGuffey and a member of Student Council and the math and French clubs.
Crystal has won medals at several competitions for her solo performances. She also performs musical theater numbers with other dancers at Synergy.
But Roz said the satisfaction for Crystal is completing a routine and not whether she wins.
“What makes her a good dancer is she doesn’t know what not being good is. Life is a blessing to her,” Roz said. “She could go on stage and get last place, and she’d be just as happy if she got first place. … Whether it’s her personality or what it is, she’s just honestly a happy person. She truly does it for the love.”
As Crystal says, “It’s better to be happy than to be sad”
Her peers at Trinity also have embraced Crystal. During a Pink-Out event earlier this year, she was invited to join the cheerleaders on the field. It was an experience she talks about with great enthusiasm.
“A lot of the kids are really good to me,” said. “If you don’t like me, so what? You ain’t going to spoil my fun.”
And she’s having plenty of it during her senior year.
Crystal participated in Trinity’s Fall Fashion Show, and she attended the fall formal. She joined the drawing club and fellowship club, and she was selected by audition to perform in the school’s spring musical, “Curtains.” She also works part time through ARC at Dress for Success in downtown Washington.
“Whatever I put my mind to, I can do it,” Crystal said.
There’s no reason to doubt her. Karen said Crystal tried and tried to perfect a pirouette. When she arrived at Synergy, Roz broke it down for her, and after six months of practice, Crystal managed to do a full pirouette.
Soon she will be preparing for life after high school. Crystal will undergo a two- to three-week evaluation to determine if she is eligible to attend the Hiram G. Andrews Center in Johnstown, which specializes in teaching daily living skills to students with disabilities. Karen admits she has some concerns because she still helps Crystal with some of her daily grooming.
Crystal also is considering applying to Community College of Allegheny County, North campus, which offers classes for students with learning disabilities.
“You know, she’s surprised me before, so who knows what will happen?” Karen said.