On Friday nights, the sport court in Dario and Caitlin Mejia’s back yard in Stillwater looks and sounds like a nightclub.
There are bright lights, throbbing music and dancers showing off their moves. Hannah Rousar is doing the “floss,” Chris Knoll hits the “hype,” and Daniel O’Rourke looks like a rising TikTok star.
UpDown Funk, a dance class for teens and young adults who have Down syndrome, autism and other intellectual disabilities, doesn’t start until 5:30 p.m., but Nicole Schroeder, 21, of White Bear Lake, is ready to go hours earlier. “Just knowing she’s going to see her friends on Friday — literally, she is ready by 10 a.m.,” her mother, Beth Schroeder, said. “Seriously. She is ready to go. This has been the best thing.”
It is the one calendar entry that Chad Bracewell, 22, of Stillwater, looks for each week. Bracewell has a rare genetic disorder and is on the autism spectrum.
“It gives him something positive to look forward to,” said his mother, Michelle Bracewell-Musson. “I created a calendar, and he would look and say, ‘OK, where’s UpDown Funk?’ That was his grounding for the week.”
The class has been instrumental in helping Nicole Schroeder, who also has autism, overcome the social isolation and withdrawal that come with the disorder.
“At the beginning, she was so shy, I had to go in with her and dance, and she was hanging on to me the whole time,” Beth Schroeder said. “Then I would go and stand at the door. Just this last summer, I’ve been able to leave. She said, ‘You can go, Mom.’ I never thought that would happen.
“You go from having one friend to all of a sudden you have 20 friends,” she said. “They are all different abilities, but they are all accepting of one another.”
A GROUP FOR CAMILO
The class is the brainchild of Dario Mejia, whose younger brother, Camilo, has Down syndrome.
Dario Mejia, 38, started dancing when he was 8 years old. He trained at Larkin Dance Studio in Maplewood, graduated from Mahtomedi High School in 2000 and studied dance at the Juilliard School in New York. After college, he danced with the Mark Morris Dance Group in New York, Luna Negra Dance Theater in Chicago and the Minnesota Dance Theatre.
In 2009, he and his sister, Giselle, founded Curio Dance Company. The next year, he was a founding member of Team iLuminate, which who took third place in “America’s Got Talent” on NBC. He contributed to iLuminate in various roles, performing, choreographing and directing, and starred in its feature full-length show, “Artist of Light,” which ran off-Broadway in 2012 and 2013. He has performed in “West Side Story” at the Ordway Theatre in St. Paul and performs the role of Drosselmeyer each year in “Loyce Houlton’s Nutcracker Fantasy” at the State Theatre in Minneapolis.
After Dario and wife Caitlin moved back to Minnesota in 2015, they and Giselle Mejia formed the performance-based, non-competitive dance school based at the Valley Ridge Mall in Stillwater. They teach everything from ballet to jazz to hip hop.
They started offering Friday Night Dance Parties to the public a few years ago, and Camilo and his friends never missed a session, Dario Mejia said. “It was just second nature for me to ask, ‘Why isn’t there a group for Camilo and all his friends, so they could showcase what they were capable of?’ ” He started UpDown Funk in November 2016.
COPING WITH THE PANDEMIC
Sarah Kramer, 20, of Stillwater, never misses a session. “This is a place where she can really, really, really be herself,” said her mother, Jan Kramer. “When she is with typical peers, sometimes she gets a little bit more reserved. The social aspect is really important. She’s really social, and it’s been really hard during the pandemic.”
Many of her other activities have been canceled this year because of COVID-19. That UpDown Funk is held each week — regardless of the weather — has been a profound blessing, Jan Kramer said.
The group has been out in rain, heat and snow. The only times they don’t dance outside is if the temperatures are dangerously cold.
“I was snow blowing the sport court last night at 10 o’clock,” Dario Mejia said Wednesday after the snowstorm. “We’ll be out there on Friday. People will probably show up in their snowsuits. We plan on continuing through. It’s just the best place for us all to gather.”
Bracewell-Musson said she is grateful the Mejias didn’t stop teaching during the pandemic. “Dario found another way of making it successful,” she said. “He doesn’t know how he’s changing the world in such a beautiful way. He’s giving people value and self-worth and has them feeling successful when successes can be rare.”
FINDING A PERFECT SPOT
When the Mejias moved into their house in Stillwater’s Oak Glen neighborhood in January 2018, they planned to tear out the sport court, which dominates the back yard. “I really like conservation and nature, and we thought we’d do a lot of planting,” Dario Mejia said. “As time passed, the sport court really became a staple — whether it was our daughter learning how to bike ride without the worry of traffic or providing these dance classes. It has become the best part of our back yard.”
On a recent Friday night, Caitlin Mejia helped work the sound system and took photos as Dario Mejia taught the class some new dance steps. The song “I’m So Humble” by Lonely Island featuring Adam Levine played over the speakers.
“He talks about modeling, so you’re flexing your muscles,” said Dario Mejia, as he performed the dance step. “One, two, three. One, two, three. Strong. Flex your muscles. Then above your head, down low and twist — like you’re starting a snowblower or a lawnmower.”
The dancers followed Mejia’s every move, even when he asked them to “push down, all the way to the ground. All the way. C’mon, you can make it. It’s not too far away for you. Hit. Then we come back up, pulse.”
HIGH EXPECTATIONS REALIZED
Wayne Malone watched in awe as his son, Matthew, who has Down syndrome, followed along.
“Dario is really good about teaching the dances,” he said. “There are some special-needs groups where they are just happy to have them out there. Curio is much more, ‘Let’s do this.’ They set high expectations. You participate as much as you can.”
Matthew Malone, 18, of Maplewood, loves to dance, his dad said. “He started dancing when he was 6 years old. He loves music. The radio is on all the time.”
UpDown Funk has helped Matthew work on his balance and jumping. “His first true two-footed jump was here at Curio,” Wayne Malone said. “During ‘Kung Fu Fighting,’ he was standing on one leg. That’s a relatively new thing that he has been able to do. And it’s because of Curio. He really does want to do what everybody else is doing.”
A FORWARD FOCUS
The first half of the class is devoted to movement. “I will just have them follow me, follow the leader, as well as doing things across the floor, so we can travel through space a bit more,” Mejia said. “But it’s still experimenting with movement and just seeing what we can do.”
The second half of class is spent rehearsing. “At the end, I’ll add on three or four bars of new movement, so 16 counts of new music that they will have to retain for the next week,” he said. “But I’ve taken those moves from earlier on in the class that maybe looked good on them, or maybe they liked a lot, or I just feel like it fits the music well.”
“I set the bar very high for them,” he said. “They, over the years, have met the challenge that I bring to them, time and time again. I’m surprised and really amazed with the steps that they continue to imitate. They pick up choreography and actually perform it on their own.”
The UpDown Funk Dance Troupe has competed at the Washington County Fair and the Minnesota State Fair and performed at the Mall of America for Special Olympics Dance-a-thons.
Their success has been a source of pride and joy, Jan Kramer said. “The thing about this class is, Dario treats them like they are adults,” she said. “He raises the bar, and he gets them to work hard.”
Instead of standing behind the dancers, Mejia models the dances in front of them and “labels what he is doing,” Bracewell-Munson said. “He is not there correcting. His focus is on himself and the modeling, which allows each individual to move at their own pace and do as much as they want or not. His focus is forward. They are actually behind him, instead of the typical way, where they are trying to correct.”
‘THEY ARE THE SMILES’
Mejia was diagnosed with Stage II testicular cancer in February and had to miss several months of dance class.
That time away was hard on everybody, said Juniper Hill, of Stillwater, whose son Dillon Hill, 20, is a member of UpDown Funk. “He gets them going,” she said. “I don’t know how he keeps them all focused. He is just so patient, and just so uplifting and supports the kids so well.”
Caitlin Mejia jokes that it’s like being married to a rock star. When he comes out to teach the class, the students all start yelling his name.
“They are the smiles that I want to see at the end of the week,” he said. “They come in with a pure heart, and they want to be a part of something good. In the end, it’s really joyful.”
TO KNOW MORE
The UpDown Funk dance class, for teens and young adults, is offered by Curio Dance Company and School from 5:30-6:25 p.m. Fridays. A junior UpDown Funk dance class, for students ages 8-14, is from 10:30-11:25 a.m. Fridays. Classes are $60 a month. For more information, go to curiodance.com
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