REDWOOD CITY — The audience at the Orpheum Graz in Austria wasn’t prepared for what awaited them during the 2017 Special Olympics World Winter Games.
It was a one-of-a-kind performance as six clients with developmental disabilities at Kainos Home and Training Center walked out on stage alongside five community volunteers to perform at last month’s World Dance Contest.
If unprompted praise from judge Apollo Ohno, an eight-time Winter Olympics medalist, is not proof enough that the 11-person ensemble acted as show-stoppers, how about the gold medals they brought back?
“You guys are the epitome of what I was hoping to see — and we saw all night long,” Ohno told the LaBlast San Francisco Kainos Dance Crew before a roaring standing ovation.
[Watch the performance here]
“We sat in the audience and we were crying,” said Barbara Rovins, president of the board at Kainos. “The mothers, we were all together, and when they opened the curtain and they come out, we are bawling. We’re all holding hands, and then the audience got all excited. And when it was over, we were all crying because it was a reality, it really happened. And they were on that night, they were perfect. That night they just pulled it together and they were wonderful.”
“Wonderful,” Kainos client Eric Tomita, who turns 29 next week, repeated with a sense of flare last week inside a conference room at the company’s headquarters in Redwood City.
The journey began during a fundraising event the previous summer.
During a fashion show, Kainos executive director Andy Frisch was introduced to Louis van Amstel, a professional dancer and choreographer with numerous appearances on the reality TV show “Dancing with the Stars” on ABC.
Not long after, van Amstel was named a judge on the panel of the World Dance Contest, as well as ambassador for dancing at the World Winter Games. He extended an invitation to Kainos, which wasn’t aware of the magnitude of the task.
This was not the first time that clients competed at the Special Olympics, with weight lifting, gymnastics, bowling, swimming and downhill skiing among the previous athletic endeavors.
But an asterisk was attached this time around.
“We didn’t understand this isn’t an official sport,” Frisch said. “It’s an exhibition.”
The dance contest premiered as a demonstration sport two years ago in Los Angeles, with a goal to sanction it as an official competition sport by 2020.
Until then, the Special Olympics wouldn’t provide funding for dancers.
And because no qualifying is required at the local, regional, state or national level, the invitation from Louis van Amstel meant a trip to Graz, Austria, was not just a possibility — it was a guarantee.
As long as Kainos could afford it.
“In October, November, it dawned on us,” Frisch said. “So we started just getting our heads around just what the budget might be.”
The guesstimate was it would cost $24,000 for the trip at the end of March.
That meant Kainos needed help from the community. It began with ART on the Square, which brings fine arts and crafts during the summer to Courthouse Square in downtown Redwood City.
Through a partnership, a signature event named H’ART Squared took place on Feb. 4 at the Veterans Memorial Senior Center to help the dance crew reach its goal.
“It was the first time they danced in public,” said Frisch, who estimates $4,000 in funds came from the art show. “And that was super energizing, to see the public’s response to them.”
A campaign on GoFundMe, an online fundraising platform, raised almost $6,000 on its own.
Then, the unexpected took place.
“Actually, GoFundMe called us up and said, ‘Do you know that we’re Redwood City-based?’ ” Frisch said. “And a week before we left, we gave a talk at their staff meeting. The president of the company was there and the staff said, ‘So where are you on your fundraising goal?’ We said, ‘Well, our goal was $24,000 and we’re at $21.’ And the president of the company said, ‘The company will match that last $3,000 for you.’ ”
Finance was only part of the logistics. There was a not-so-small matter of the routine.
Clients across Kainos were recruited, among them Tomita and fellow La Vista resident Julie Flahavan, both born with Down syndrome.
“My dad liked to dance with me when I was a little girl,” said Flahavan, 46, who previously competed at the Special Olympics in swimming and bowling.
“We met Arnold Schwarzenegger over there,” she added. “I did weight lifting with him.”
Others clients included Jennifer James from Adult Beginnings, Supported Living’s Elyssa Cummings and Tod Ostrom, plus Paula Riddell from the Triplex.
Three volunteers who accompanied them on stage in Austria were Adult Beginning program manager Shea Acosta, San Carlos teacher Gina Reidy as well as Cheryl McGovern, a friend of Kainos.
“Because that’s what we’re supposed to be about, it’s getting our clients integrated into the community,” Frisch said. “So we got this team together and they started practicing on a weekly basis.”
The dance routine was choreographed by van Amstel, who just happens to be the creator of LaBlast, a partner-free dance fitness program.
LaBlast classes are taught at ClubSport in San Jose, where at the end of October the dance crew began a pilgrimage every Wednesday to learn their steps, with Saturday sessions tacked on.
“I think we counted altogether 100 hours (of training),” said Kirsten Johnson, a LaBlast coach at ClubSport. “We started with once a week, then we ended up with twice a week.”
“When I went to one practice, they were short a dancer for some reason,” Frisch said. “I don’t remember who it was, so they had me try and do it. It was exhausting. It is a sport.”
“It looks easier than it is,” said Johnson, who was part of the LaBlast SF Kainos Dance Crew, along with ClubSport dance teacher Megumi Riel. “I think what stood out for me is each time they showed up for practice, they were ready and they were enthusiastic — never, ever, ever complaining. They always supported each other. If someone was a little bit sad because they didn’t understand the steps, everybody would be comforting them and cheering on.”
Warm-ups at practices always took place in a circle, with steps from the routine methodically introduced.
“For me, being a dance instructor, it was just a very different way of wrapping my brain around working with people with learning disabilities,” Johnson said. “It’s not like you do, ‘Right foot forward, left foot back’ — it’s not happening like that. So we needed different ways of doing that and making it maybe more playful, using the music, using different pathways of learning the routine. It’s not a straightforward way of learning.
“And, also, looking into what we could do, how far can we go — and how far can we not go. For instance, with salsa, at first we did the double-time rhythm, which I often do. However, in the group, I noticed it was just way too fast. So I went, ‘Well, let’s just do half-time and let’s do it well.’ ”
Trip to Austria
An entourage of family and Kainos board members joined the dance crew during an 11-hour overnight flight to Europe.
“We were all huddled together in one part of the plane,” Frisch said.
One person clearly not concerned about crossing the Atlantic was Tomita, who stayed awake in the plane.
“Yeah, because I love my iPad,” he said. “I watched movies all the time.”
“I was worried if this guy was ever going to get any sleep,” Frisch said.
In Graz, the sight-seeing included a climb up a long series of stairs to the Schlossberg “hanging gardens” — then a lift back down with panoramic views of the city.
After the competition, a short stay at the capital of Vienna included an introduction to Lipizzaner horses, the Belvedere Palace and a treat in the form of Sachertorte, a chocolate cake with apricot jam filling, at Hotel Sacher Wien.
When it came time to perform at the Orpheum Graz, the atmosphere was palpitating.
“As we held hands in the darkened backstage area, we felt the excitement and power of the accomplishment of our little group,” Reidy said in a statement. “Stepping onto the stage and into the spotlights was a thrill, and a new experience for many of us. The music carried us through our routine and before we knew it we bowed before a very appreciative crowd.”
Fearless in his performance, Tomita infused enthusiasm into the audience by displaying his gymnastics background with a series of cartwheels and acrobatics.
“At Austria, I was not afraid to be on a stage,” Tomita said.
“I think he’s just a fabulous addition to us,” Johnson said. “Because we were doing more the standard dances, and he did his solos, which was fabulous — also for entertainment.”
“And none of the other teams did anything like that,” Rovins added.
“I think that’s why, after they did the performance, we were just going to go out and they called us back in,” Johnson continued. “And they said, ‘That’s actually what we wanted to see.’ ”
Ohno even complimented LaBlast SF Kainos for its music of choice, “Lift Me Up” by David Guetta.
“He also liked that we had a song that made a statement,” Johnson said.
A return engagement two days later on March 24 for the closing ceremonies, which were broadcast on ESPN, found the dance crew once again wearing its distinctive uniforms — black tops and pink skirts for the women, with gold, long-sleeved shirts for the two men and a volunteer.
“Our clients were in their outfits, and from everywhere in the audience you just kept seeing the pink and the gold right out front,” Frisch said.
“And it’s not just pink,” Johnson said. “It’s pink and sparkles, so with all the lights it reflects even more.”
“They really showed from the stage,” Rovins said. “We could pick them all out.”
With van Amstel leading the group to the tune of “Celebration” by Kool & The Gang, the closing ceremonies also included a speech from Schwarzenegger in his hometown and plenty of fireworks.
“And Eric was out there in front of the whole 15,000 people trying to whip the audience up,” Frisch said.
“Sometimes if I started clapping everybody would stand up,” Tomita said. “I just said, ‘Stay down.’ It was kind of a wave.”
A self-designated “coat holder” on the chilly evening, Frisch also spotted another client from the side of the stage.
“I see Jennifer and she’s just dancing,” said Frisch, who hopes to send another dance crew for the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games next July in Seattle. “Then I see her look out into the audience and I can imagine she’s seeing 15,000 people, and she just looks and laughs like, ‘Look at this!’ Then she went back to dancing, and that was the moment for me — for the whole trip.
“It was seeing Jennifer looking with that sense of satisfaction, ‘Here I am! In front of the world!’ That was just fantastic.”