Volume 18 • Issue 11 | August 5 - 11, 2005

Learning to dance after you can no longer walk

By Ronda Kaysen

Downtown Express photo by Elisabeth Robert
Handicapped students at Maher Benham’s school learn yoga and dance.
There is no shortage of yoga studios in New York. There are studios for celebrities, for expectant mothers, for babies, for people with H.I.V. There’s even yoga for dogs. One group has been forgotten in the rush to saturate the city with sun salutations: children and adults with physical disabilities. Until now.

Last spring, a new studio opened in a Soho loft dedicated people suffering from physical disabilities including cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, Down’s syndrome and autism. The Hummingbirds School, a bright, airy space with maple floors sprung for dancers and a bank of 10-foot high mirrors, was founded in 2003 by a former Martha Graham dancer who hoped to bring dance and yoga to people for whom movement itself is an all-consuming challenge.

“Who in a wheelchair could go to Jivamukti?” said Maher Benham, the founder and artistic director of Hummingbirds. Jivamukti Yoga Center on Lafayette St., where Benham studied yoga, is frequented by Sting, Madonna and Gwyneth Paltrow. “A vision came to me – create a space where handicapped people can go.”

Hummingbirds currently offers classes in dance, yoga and music for children and adults, many of whom are wheelchair bound. Benham hopes to eventually offer 15 classes a day, six days a week in the 10,000 sq. ft. space.

Students pay a sliding scale – from as little as $5 for an hour-long class to as much as $25, depending on ability. If a family or student cannot afford the $5 fee, Hummingbirds will cover the cost entirely. “Money is not an obstacle here,” Benham said. The school has a large battery of teachers – five dance teachers, four yoga teachers and five music teachers – and when the fall schedule begins in October, the school will offer 15 to 20 classes a week.

Benham, a Thompson St. resident, signed a 10-year lease for the space in the New Era building, an 1879 Art Nouveau building on Broadway and Broome St., in 2003. However, financing the fledgling nonprofit organization, a 501(c) 3, is proving to be a challenge. Low estimates for the organization’s annual budget are $750,000 a year, but Benham expects it will cost closer to $900,000 a year to run the studio as she sees fit.

The space was previously a sweatshop and in need of a gut renovation, which has already cost $430,000. Frank Labriola, the designer, expects it will cost between $150,000 and $175,000 to complete the project. The 200-foot long room will eventually be divided into three studios, divided by folding glass doors, said Benham. A glass wall, with a waterfall running down the front of it, will separate the elevator banks from the studio rooms. Another waterfall may eventually separate the office space from the studio. The waterfalls alone will cost $50,000.

“We need an enormous donation,” said Benham. Currently, the organization has four members on its board of directors and Benham is searching for more. “The requirements are that you give $5,000 and can get $5,000 from five other donors,” she said of charter board members. She has also been applying for grants to fund the programs.

The first time I visited the studio, Martin Stanley, the head carpenter, was constructing an open-air boutique. When I returned a few days later, the boutique was finished and Hummingbirds tee shirts hung from the wall. The school will also sell books, water bottles, Hummingbirds date books and yoga mats.

SohoSoleil, a locations company on Grand St. steered by artist Wendy Friedman, recently added Hummingbirds to its list of locations for weddings, photo shoots and film sets.

Benham, a wispy woman with long features and waist length hair, wore a flowing purple jacket and a long dress when I met her, a diamond bindi between her eyes and a ring in her nose. When she shifts from discussing the business model of her school to talking about its mission, her voice changes from the serious tone of finances and funding to a fluttering lilt. “Yoga is not a physical thing, it’s a spiritual thing,” she said.

A dance teacher since 1986, she launched her own company, Coyote Dancers, in 1993. In the late 1980s, she worked with a teenaged girl with Cerebral Palsy. Recalling the words of Martha Graham, Benham told the girl, “The heart is a hummingbird.” She jumped from her seat to show me, her hands fluttering across her chest. “There’s a hummingbird in your heart! A hummingbird in your heart!” The wheelchair bound girl rose to her feet, she said, standing on her own.

Although Benham is not professionally trained to work with disabled people, she is confident her years of yoga and dance training suffice. “Working with people with special needs is a matter of your heart. Training is not everything,” she said, adding that her nephew, Fred Tucchinardi, Jr., was born in 1984 with cerebral palsy.

The students at Hummingbirds range in their disabilities. Some are entirely wheelchair bound and others are able to work on the floor. Soon, harnessed bungee cords will hang from the ceiling, allowing the children to dangle along the walls. “If you’ve been in a wheelchair your entire life, you’ve never done a backbend. You’ve never been able to open up like that,” she said, arching her back to demonstrate.

Although she comes to the school after years of teaching form and technique, Benham sees this project as far more basic than her others. “My goal here is not to teach technique, but for people to just have fun.”

Classes start in the first week of October. An open house will be held on Sat., Sept. 17 from 1-4 p.m. To register, contact the Hummingbirds School, 495 Broadway, at 212-925-7515.



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