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Heartbeat Has Rhythm And Personality

Pictured are (front, left to right) Gabby Fleming, Chelsea Ferrick, Erin Nakamoto, Cailey Chong; (middle) Natasha Brice, Marly Garces, Jasmine Humalon, Jordan Ilae; (back) Marcus Jung, Kenji Momohara, Jason Smits, Kekoa Tato and Alton Bustamante

Born with various disabilities, members of dance troupe Heartbeat will show off their amazing (and heartwarming) abilities, personalities and rhythm on stage at both Disneyland and the Special Olympics World Games in Los Angeles this week.

As you read this, 13 smiling souls are on their way from Hawaii to an international stage in Los Angeles where dreams are certain to come true for thousands of athletes over the next few days.

The Heartbeat dance troupe is invited to perform during opening and welcoming ceremonies for the 2015 Special Olympics World Games (July 25-Aug. 2), considered this year’s largest sports and humanitarian event on the planet. The dancers, their parents and teachers have been working toward that spotlight moment for months with fundraisers, rehearsals and performances all over Oahu.

They also will dance at Disneyland July 27, have breakfast with Mickey and friends, and experience many things strange and new, such as airport security screening, not to mention dancing for 6,500 athletes from 165 countries and a half-million spectators.



Formed in 2007 to bring the magic of dance and music to young people with disabilities, Heartbeat created a bit of magic in others right from the start. As 24-VII Danceforce director and founder Marcelo Pacleb says, recalling their first class in his Windward Mall studio: “It was a big experience for all of us. We and the parents, we all had tears in our eyes because they responded so well. With music, they’re free, and are pure joy to watch.

“It’s so unfair that society looks down on them,” Pacleb adds, with a touch of anger, “that they have to struggle, and experience bullying. But when you see them on stage, you just want to help them — who wouldn’t?”

To do so, one needs a good heart, and a good beat.

Gabby Fleming, Marcus Jung, Natasha Brice and Anton Bustamante give it their all at rehearsal  BODIE COLLINS PHOTO

Gabby Fleming, Marcus Jung, Natasha Brice and Anton Bustamante give it their all at rehearsal

Regular 24-VII dancers volunteer their time to help with the weekly Heartbeat classes, where youths and young adults with Down syndrome, autism and other developmental delays step out of those labels and into the rhythm, via a leader and oneon- one helpers. Close in age, they bond easily with the students like sisters, have fun and give plenty of love with the lessons.

A veteran of dozens of 24-VII dance concerts and a Castle graduate, volunteer Chesarey Fujimori, 19, shared how she’s learned to hold their attention (playful games, freeze poses, etc.), and what they’ve taught her in turn.

“Some don’t like touching, so no hugs,” she says. “But a high five is OK.” But most of all: “They teach you to be very grateful and thankful for what you have. When their day begins, they wake up with a smile and the attitude of ‘We’re going to do this!’ ”

Parents appreciate Fujimori for the confidence she instills in their kids. “The beauty of Chessie is she always allows them to be who they are,” says Kahea Ilae, mother of Jordan, 22. “She’s the first one that they didn’t need helpers for on stage.”

Jordan (Castle 2013), who hopes to “be on TV someday,” apparently has been looking forward to this L.A. trip, Ilae adds: “Every morning she asks me, ‘When are we getting on the plane?’ ”

The classes are free to special-needs kids, and Pacleb says his busy nonprofit studio absorbs the cost from other dance fees and “makes it work.” Heartbeat also is included in many of the studio’s public concerts, though they’ll miss the next one (July 31-Aug. 2 at Paliku Theatre) because of this trip.

In Kaneohe, they’ve learned from the best. Ashley and Jonelle Layfield, both local pageant winners involved with 24-VII and UH Rainbow dancers, co-founded Heartbeat with Pacleb after seeing a need. Now living in L.A. to pursue dancing and acting careers, the sisters are coordinating the World Games opportunity and have started another nonprofit there, Heartbeat Movement. Their goal, Jonelle says, is “to bring all the Hawaii and California Heartbeat dancers together as one big family.”

The Layfields even choreographed the dances for the trip and sent videos to Kaneohe for studio practice.

It’s Kekoa Tato, Jason Smits and Brice on the front line  BODIE COLLINS PHOTO

It’s Kekoa Tato, Jason Smits and Brice on the front line

Current Heartbeat teacher here is 24-VII alumna Cara Horibe, back home from a successful decade of dancing in L.A. and now a new mother. She jumped at the chance to teach for Heartbeat.

“I feel extra love now, being a mom,” Horibe explains, “and they work so hard and are full of personality.” She also admits to having “well-worked cheeks” from smiling through all the lessons.

“One trait of Down syndrome is that they are very musical and social,” explains Celeste Humalon, parent of Castle High student Jasmine. “They love to entertain.”

Like many others on the Heartbeat team, Humalon’s daughter also has competed in Special Olympics sports. But it’s Jasmine’s dancing that’s brought her out of her shell and inspired dreams of singing on television.

“Dancing is something they love,” notes parent Abraleen Keli‘inui. “It’s not like an IEP (Individualized Education Program) to fulfill.”

“I like to dance to my heart’s content,” says Natasha Brice, 23 and a Heartbeat student with a huge, bright smile. “Dancing helps us move our bodies and follow the rhythm.”

A 2011 Kailua High graduate with an autism diagnosis, Natasha lives in Waimanalo and takes the bus to work at a Hickam dining hall through a Lanakila Pacific jobs program. Accompanied by her mom (Keli‘inui), Natasha also flew to Washington, D.C., this summer, where she spoke to a SourceAmerica conference on behalf of employment opportunities for individuals with significant disabilities. Her simple, direct message drew hearty applause.

Others not so articulate still shine with a joyful stage presence and a love of mimicry. A Kailua High 2005 graduate, Alton Bustamante, 30, is a soloist and a bit of a ham. Yet it was his touching signing routine to Wind Beneath My Wings that captivated the crowd at a mall show in June.

Now aiming at a performing career, Alton’s resume should include this observation from Pacleb: “Alton’s a pro. Nothing fazes him, he’s so much in control.”

“Alton would dance around, or pretend to be a mannequin,” says mom Jeannie Bustamante. “Yet he was very shy and wouldn’t speak. Heartbeat opened him up socially. Now he speaks pretty good. He’ll go up to a complete stranger and say ‘Nice blouse!’” He’s also danced at church worship services, and for Bishop Larry Silva at a parish breakfast.

Julie Momohara views son Kenji, 19, as her “extra bonus and extra blessing.” He had no sense of time before joining Heartbeat, she says, “but now he knows his dance schedule by heart.”

The dancers take over Windward Mall’s stage. Photo by Anthony Consillio.

The dancers take over Windward Mall’s stage

The youngest of the group’s male dancers, Kenji just graduated from Mililani High, where he acquired a love of football, too. He joined the 2014 champion Mililani Trojans unofficially last fall, proudly wearing his own jersey and sitting on the bench with his big buddies throughout the exciting season.

Kenji wears their championship ring, and the quarterback’s mother recently presented him with a team helmet. He brought it to dance rehearsal, of course.

After this trip, it’s back to powerlifting and basketball. But right now, what does Kenji want?

“Yes, ma’am,” he says. “I like Disneyland, rides and buying souvenirs!”

Marcus Jung has achieved much in his 21 years, thanks in part to super-involved parents and the motivational “carrot” of Heartbeat. As mom Renee told another reporter, “I can make him do anything if I say, ‘You’re not going to dance class if you don’t do this.’”

A Castle 2014 grad, he now works at Kaneohe Marine base food court, and also earned his Eagle Scout rank by building a storage shed for Special Olympics equipment.

“I don’t know where he gets all his energy,” adds family friend John Teves. “One time we were at their house all day, and he never stopped dancing … There’s no disability when it comes to music.”

Teves and wife Melinda know Miles and Renee Jung and the whole Heartbeat team well, and have become their uncle, auntie and faithful fundraisers (smoked meat and laulau). They’re also chaperones, paying their own way on the L.A. trip.

“Our children are grown, and we have time,” Teves explains. “What better way to spend it? And I’m looking forward to having fun with these kids.”

Marly Garces, 22, may not read or write, but she knows all of her dance routines and remembers every song lyric. “She hears one note, and she knows what song it is already,” says Liz Garces, a single mom who gave up her job as an RN to stay at home in Mililani with Marly and her two younger brothers. Having an active, loving, outgoing daughter who’s never hurtful, Garces sees a future for Marly in “greeting people.”

The Heartbeat moms: (back, from left) Lorie Ioane, Pasche Chong, Celeste Humalon, Violet Kalai, Kahea Ilae, (front) Wendy Smits, Dee Ferrick, Renee Jung, Jeanie Bustamante, Elizabeth Garces, Abraleen Keli‘inui and Candace Nakamoto ANTHONY CONSILLIO PHOTOS

The Heartbeat moms: (back, from left) Lorie Ioane, Pasche Chong, Celeste Humalon, Violet Kalai, Kahea Ilae, (front) Wendy Smits, Dee Ferrick, Renee Jung, Jeanie Bustamante, Elizabeth Garces, Abraleen Keli‘inui and Candace Nakamoto

Disability can translate to limited expectations from society, which trains them only for simple, entry level duties. But dancing has opened their world to much more. Kekoa Tato, for example, does janitorial work at an elementary school, but mom Lorie Ioane sees Heartbeat as a stepping stone for her 21-year-old son to dancing and acting jobs.

“I will be a singer, a dancer and a rock star,” he once declared. Kekoa, after all, is called the Michael Jackson of Heartbeat.

Like most parents, Dee Ferrick is caught up in other projects for the kids. As the mother of Mililani High student Chelsea, 20, Ferrick and Ilae co-founded Peter’s Prom, with Garces helping out this year. The fourth annual gala spring dance was held in April for special-needs high schoolers islandwide. Shy Chelsea was crowned prom queen in 2013.

Also on the dance team for this trip are Jason Smits (Castle 2014), Erin Nakamoto (Castle 2015), Cailey Chong (King Intermediate) and Gabby Fleming (Enchanted Lake Elementary).

The parents, meanwhile, have grown to be key players in the village that is Heartbeat, playing multiple roles of chauffeur, cheerleader, concessionaire, costume stitcher and changer, chaperone, fundraiser, photographer, time juggler, advocate and chief worrier and hoverer.

They’ve also bonded among themselves and grown as they’ve watched their children grow.

To help support the trip, visit gofundme.com/heartbeat2worlds.