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Disabled Merrick student finds freedom in dance

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Sixteen-year-old Abigail Penny loves to dance, but spina bifida — a disease that impairs mobility — prevents her legs from moving to the beat. Luckily, Dancing Dreams gives her the outlet she needs to pursue her passion.

Penny, an 11th-grader at Mepham High School, has been with the Bayside dancing studio since the age of 4. Joann Ferrara, 62, of Jericho, created Dancing Dreams to give disabled girls like Penny the chance to dance without fear of judgment.

The Thursday night sessions have become more than an outlet of expression for the girls, though —for many of them, including Penny, it gives them a sense of belonging.

“I definitely see everyone as family,” Penny said after a dancing session that featured glowing smiles and colorful props. “I love Joann. She’s like a second mother to me.”

Ferrara serves girls with a range of disabilities, from autism to diseases like Penny’s that make it difficult to move. A group of helpers aid the dancers, ensuring they can have fun regardless of their restrictions.

Penny needs help standing. A group of three volunteers — who she also sees as close friends — help support her and hold her knees to straighten her stance. She expresses her dance moves through “flowy” arms, said volunteer and friend Anabelle Lau, who has been paired with Penny for nearly three years.

This past month, she held onto the barre and stood on her own for a total of three minutes and 16 seconds — the longest she has stood since the fourth grade.

“I’ve fought hard,” Penny said, “and here I’m able to express myself in ways that I normally can’t.”

When outside the studio, “I feel myself wanting to dance,” she said.

“Abigail is the epitome of what dance is,” Ferrara said. “Dance comes from the heart, and her heart shows when she’s dancing.”

Now, Penny hopes to show her love of dancing to her Bellmore and Merrick classmates. She is waiting on approval for a February dance performance at Mepham.

“I brought the idea to our principal and he immediately loved it,” Penny said.

In the meantime, Penny remains united with the dance group. It is tradition for Ferrara to bring out the girls’ “attitudes” and add flair to the dances. She ends off the sessions with the girls chanting the group’s name — “We’re the Dancing Divas!” they all shout.