Turning tap into words

Published 10:54 pm Saturday, July 11, 2009

“Ball … Change … Ball … Change … Ball … Change!”

In a dance studio at the Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts on Thursday, tap instructor Lauren West leads her students, Noah Gaduyon, 5, and Gracie Godinez, 7, in some basic steps.

Holding hands, Noah and Gracie tap the heels and balls of their feet on the hardwood floor in time to “Witch Doctor,” one of Noah’s favorite songs, as West calls out “Ball … Change” for every step.

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It seems like a normal tap dancing class, until West reaches down and grabs Noah’s foot to correct the way he is performing the step. With other students, she would simply show him how to do it, but not with Noah.

That’s because Noah is completely blind.

Noah has Norrie’s disease, an extremely rare genetic disorder that left him blind by the age of 6 months. The disease is caused by a gene mutation that affects the production of protein, necessary for the senses of sight and hearing.

About one-third of people with Norrie disease develop progressive hearing loss, and more than half experience developmental delays and behavioral problems.

Noah, however, seems determined not to let his condition affect him. His mother agrees.

“We want him to have the same opportunities as other kids,” Karen Gaduyon said, watching him during his tap class. “There’s a good chance he’ll lose his hearing. We’re hoping that doesn’t happen because he loves music so much.”

Noah’s love of music is evident in the smile on his face as “Witch Doctor” plays again. He also has an extraordinary sense of rhythm, West said.

“You can show him a step once, and he repeats it exactly the same,” she said. The challenge for West is that she has to manually move his legs and feet to teach him the step.

“It’s really exciting for me as a teacher because it’s something challenging,” she said. “Usually, I come into a classroom and I expect the kids to just visually mimic me.”

Gaduyon approached West about teaching Noah tap after mother and son took West’s “mommy and me” dance class last year. West was excited about the opportunity, but knew she couldn’t teach Noah in a normal-sized class.

“I wanted to do it, and I needed to work with him one on one,” she said.

To help, West enlisted Gracie, who has already been in several of her classes. Gracie and Noah attended preschool together, and it helps Noah to have a friend his size with him, Gaduyon said.

Noah says that he enjoys his tap lessons, particularly the steps called shuffle, alligator walk and ball change.

“I like shuffle,” he said, before requesting to hear “Witch Doctor” again. West added that he likes the old, “doo-wop” music.

Gaduyon says the classes have been beneficial to Noah, who will enter kindergarten in the fall.

“It helps with his self-help and social skills.”