Ballroom dancing transforms lives at Valley shelter

PHOENIX - Sometimes, all you need is a distraction to ease your mind and get you back on track. 

Such a simple thing can be so powerful. 

In this case, the distraction is dancing and it's having a remarkable impact on the human spirit here in the Valley.

"I've been pushing this for at least three hours."

When you have nowhere to live and your life consists of pushing a shopping cart all day in the sun, finding a different path is unimaginable.

"I'm exhausted, overwhelmed by the heat."

But, even more overpowering than the scorching sun is the sense of hopelessness.

"I'm gonna die out there, I'm gonna die out there."

You can see it everywhere on the faces of the people who live at the Lodestar Day Resource Center, a homeless campus in Downtown Phoenix.

"In my mind, a job is going to be the solution. Once you have income, you're no longer going to be homeless," says Shannon Felty.

But, it didn't take long for her to learn she was wrong.

DAY ONE:

"It was the day before Mother's Day that I finally went into the shelter," she remembers.
 
With no money, no job, no support system, Shannon was forced to enter into a life she never imagined for herself, "I'd never been in a room full of women who were so unhappy. I thought I'd pull myself together and I'd be right back out. I wasn't the same as homeless people."

DAY TWO:

"Sunday, Mother's Day.  I just kind of sat there all day."
 
It's then she realized she wasn't just homeless, she'd joined the ranks of the hopeless.
 
"I wasn't the different one. I was the same as everybody else," she says.

THREE MONTHS LATER:

"Ballroom dancing is not for the elite. It's for anybody who can do it," says Dawn Shires, the volunteer coordinator at Lodestar.

And anybody includes the homeless.

But, Shannon wanted no part of it, "Why? Why do such a silly thing?  In my mind, if you had time for ballroom dance class, like, why couldn't you be out finding a job?"

"Normally you wouldn't think this would be the place, but it's actually a perfect fit here," Dawn explains.

Step by step, week by week, these miscast dancers twirl, sway, spin and learn the unlikely: the Rumba, the Foxtrot, the Viennese Waltz, all while wearing hand-me-down clothes and newfound smiles.

"There was a kind of buzz in the restroom in the morning of the women who were going to be going into ballroom dance," Shannon recalls.

She started to crave that palpable, positive energy, lost in the shelter where she was living and decided to give it a try.

"My cheeks are sore because I'm smiling and everybody else is smiling and we're laughing at our mistakes, we're talking to each other without pretenses and it took ten minutes to forget I was homeless," she says.

The melody of the music was powerful enough to remind her it felt like to be happy.

"I didn't think once about the shelter or how I was going to get my clothes washed or what was going to be eating that day.  I was simply enjoying the moment. I don't know if I'd ever done that ever in my life," Shannon says.

In half a beat, that short, ten minute dance turned into an hour, three times a week, for an entire year.  

"I was looking forward to the next day," says Shannon. "Before dance class, there was nothing to look forward to.'

"What we work hard here to help people to do is maintain that dignity, even though they're in a very undignified circumstance," Dawn explains.

Restoring dignity to someone who's given up on finding it.

"It lives within us, you just need to remind people of that," Dawn says.  

It's why she spent so much time designing this one-of-a-kind ballroom dance program right here in the Valley.

"By the second or third class, you are already seeing the impact it has through body language and people standing up straighter."

The dancing gave Shannon the sense of strength she needed outside the ballroom.

"I walked differently. I held my head up."

ONE YEAR LATER:  

With a swing in her step, Shannon took a chance and, eventually, a volunteer position at Lodestar evolved into a full-time administrative job. While the job certainly reversed her homelessness, Shannon says it was the dance that helped her beat hopelessness.

"I honestly, truly don't know if I'd still be alive today if I hadn't been in that ballroom dance class and learned how to love myself and learned how to trust myself."

And learned that a single step, sway or spin, when choreographed together, is powerful enough to change the rhythm of a life.

For more information about the homeless ballroom dancing documentary "I Hope You Dance, the Power of Spirit and Song," you can visit the Meteor 17 website.

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