Gann Senior Leads Charge in Dance Therapy Program
In between college applications and dance classes, Sierra Weiss '14 is a committed volunteer, a State House intern and President/Founder of dance4empowerment.
dance4empowerment — a non-profit organization that develops dance programs for people with disabilities and funds inclusive art programs in Boston — was born through experience as a camper and counselor-in-training at Camp Ramah in New England, support from mentors and peers at Gann Academy, and a deep passion for dance and its therapeutic nature.
In her second to last year as a camper at Camp Ramah, Weiss participated in an elective that allowed her to contribute to the Tikvah program, a full overnight camp experience for Jewish children with disabilities. “I found them to be very inspiring, and very humbling,” says Weiss. “I really wanted to give back to the Tikvah campers at Ramah for sharing so much with me.”
Gann Academy was very supportive of her newfound interest. In her junior year at Gann, she participated in the Academy’s Exploration Week — a week to learn outside of the traditional classroom through planned national or local trips. Gann gave Weiss the flexibility to create her own trip, during which she traveled to Israel to learn more about the pioneer foundations available for Israeli children with disabilities. That same year, she did an Independent Research and Design (IRaD) project on the genetics of Down’s syndrome. “I was interested in learning more of the genetic background of people with disabilities, and I think that it was really amazing that Gann gave me the opportunity to further my studies and understanding of the students I was working with,” she says.
A dancer at Joanne Langione Dance Center in Newton since seventh grade, Weiss decided the best way to empower her Tikvah campers was through a dance program. “Because dance is such a therapeutic time for me, giving me time to reflect on my week, express myself, have fun, and make new connections I wanted to bring dance to Ramah,” she says.
As a counselor-in-training, she organized for a dance therapist to spend two days teaching a therapy program to the campers. The dance therapist cancelled last minute. “I think it may have turned out for the better,” she says. The change of plans allowed her to work with a dance instructor at Camp Ramah and teach the Tikvah campers a dance to be performed in front of the entire camp.
After her first successful program at Camp Ramah and her experiential learning through Gann, Weiss says she met with several mentors, cemented her idea and goals, and decided to incorporate as a non-profit. Today, dance4empowerment is a vision that supports existing programs, like the Tikvah program and Gateways Access to Jewish Life in Newton. At Gateways, a Sunday school program for individuals with disabilities, she volunteers weekly, leading movement programs in a ten-student classroom. She hopes to soon double the size of the Gateways program and expand into a second ten-student classroom.
"I had the pleasure of getting to know Sierra when she sought out an internship with the Ruderman Family Foundation and eventually worked for us this past summer," said Jay Ruderman, President of the organization. “Rarely do I meet a young person with the drive, focus and entrepreneurial spirit as I found in Sierra [and] I was continually impressed by her and believe she will have many successes in life."
After her college applications are drafted, perfected, and mailed out, Weiss says she’ll have more time to create additional partnerships for dance4empowerment—one of which she hopes will be Joanne Langione Dance Center. “We have a huge recital every year in June, and I think it’d be really amazing if there were more students with disabilities performing,” she says. “It would give them something to be proud of and something to look forward to.”