The Jeena Experience
When we started the Mona Khan Company, we knew that we wanted to be involved in the community; to make a difference, however small it may be.We often perform for non-profit organizations and fundraisers but we wanted to get involved more directly. Rather than skim the surface of numerous causes, we decided to focus on two: Jeena and Jollywood.
Jeena is an organization for children with developmental disabilities, and their families. “Why Jeena?” I remember asking Mona Khan, when we had just started teaching there. “Because everyone must pick their cause. This is mine,” she had said. Our involvement in Jeena is a class that we conduct once a week for the kids, while a simultaneous class is held for the moms. The whole point is to provide an environment where the kids can EXPRESS themselves, have a BLAST dancing to Bollywood music, make FRIENDS, gain CONFIDENCE, and just BE themselves.
Shobana Shankar, who has been teaching these kids, since we first began this initiative, always talks about how far they have come. There was a time when just keeping them attentive was difficult. Now they MEDITATE for an entire song, at the end of the class. “They don’t need to be told, or guided. They just KNOW it,” says Shobana, her face beaming with pride. Their ability to pick up new steps, their confidence, their spatial awareness, all excite and amaze us. But the best part is their enthusiasm and love for the STAGE. From the lights to the glittering costumes, they just can’t get enough of it! Their first performance was UNFORGETTABLE. We were nervous as to how they would react in front of hundreds of people; whether they would get distracted, intimidated, or anxious. But they were just so joyous that it brought tears to our eyes. From their stage debut to now, they have become seasoned performers, who know the expectations of a stage performance. They stand still as the curtain opens, and hold their final pose, till it closes. We were delighted at their first performance but they have surpassed it by MILES now.
In class, we use bright colored circular mats, with the kids’ names on them and place these on the floor. At the beginning of the class, they stand on their respective mats and the class begins. One of the biggest challenges was to keep them in their places and for them to stay FOCUSED. With the use of the circles, and constant practice, this has become much easier. The parents have been a great source of support and encouragement, often giving us invaluable tips, on how to keep their kids interested and excited. They would often ask us to play a certain song and suddenly a child who refused to dance would be instilled with enthusiasm. Now of course, we are flooded with REQUESTS. They want to dance and perform to their favorite songs. From old Hindi songs, to the latest numbers and even songs from movies like “The Lion King, ” the kids embrace it all.
Encouragement and positive feedback goes a long way, so by being patient, attentive and supportive, we are able to bring out the best in them. It is a constant learning process, where we have to be aware of INDIVIDUAL needs. Kittu is bothered by loud noises, so he wears headphones to filter the noise, and is always positioned furthest away from the boom box. Raj could barely move his hand. By constantly reminding him, and then standing next to him and helping him to extend; 2 sessions later, he is a different dancer! Some students need stickers and stamps to motivate them and time outs to keep them in check!
Initially the moms would constantly be overlooking the kids’ class but now they are able to enjoy their own dance experience (with instructor Ishika Seth), while the kids are immersed in theirs. It is great for them to have an hour in the week dedicated to their own enjoyment and fitness.
In fact, it is the kids now, who often barge into their moms’ class during water breaks (to dance freestyle to the song the moms are learning!). There is an intermingling of cheering and songs, instructions and laughter. Besides their separate songs, we like to have one song in which the kids and the moms dance TOGETHER. It is incredibly special for them and for us, to see them jamming together on stage. They perform on stage for our student showcases as well as their annual show “Jeena Yahan.” Initially we had a few Junior Emerging Performers dance with them so they could guide them. Now, they don’t need that guidance but it is still fun for the Jeena kids to interact with them.
Dancing together for a few years, we have learnt a lot about these kids. (fun facts about them are listed below!) Even as we can see the changes in the kids, we know that we are irrevocably changed by our interaction with them. The experience has been greatly rewarding and Jeena has become a huge part of our lives. We wanted to make a small contribution but in the process, our own lives have been enriched.
Fun Facts about the superstars:
Jazzie has an amazing memory. Tell her your birthday once and she will always remember it. Her mother complains about it, saying that Jazzie will remember everyone’s birthdays and force her to buy things for them!
Ozzie is mature and responsible. Always the least trouble and a fabulous dancer!
Kittu creates magic as soon as his fingers touch the piano keys.
Anisha recently baked delicious cupcakes for her birthday. She always has a smile on her face!
Adit learns a Hindi song every week and sings for all the kids, as they clap along.
Mano is like dynamite; tons of energy packed into his little self.
Gagan is the Captain of the class. She is always providing advice, usually unsolicited!
Jasjit is responsible for putting the colored circular mats. He dances really well and complains just as much!
Nirali is a natural dancer. She has charming expressions, and her love for dance shines though.
Rowan is just a stud! His expressions are priceless. He is going to break many hearts when he grows up. He was very sad when Shobana got married!
Rishabh is very talented. Besides being a great singer and dancer, he is extremely loving. He always has a smile on his face and a hug to offer anyone and everyone.
Ankit is really calm. His smile can light up your day!
Sanjana makes a special appearance as an audience member. She loves watching everyone dance, especially her mom.
(Check them out in action on our Spring Student Showcase on May 22)
What the Jeena Moms have to say:
“I joined dancing just a month ago inspired by the enthusiasm of the instructor, Ishika Seth and my friends already in the class. I had never danced before but in one month I learnt the steps and performed on stage. Wow! it has energized me so much that I am going to continue the classes. My spirits are soaring!” — Rajashree Hangal
“A couple of reasons why we like Mona, Shobana & Ishika-
1. Always a positive attitude– yes we/you can.
2. Always on time
3. Encouraging — always find something positive that the student has learned
4. A very contagious smile- always
I can go on & on…” — Suman Kumar
“Mona Khan Company has been a great opportunity for my daughter, Nirali, to showcase her dance skills. The dance teachers are very patient and very understanding. It has given all our kids at Jeena, a chance to shine”— Sonal Gandhi
“Dancing with Mona Khan Company is a sense of freedom for me. As a working mom with 2 kids and an extremely tough career, I find that my weekly sessions with Mona’s company release me from my boundaries. For people like me who love to dance but are clumsy, uncoordinated and love social interaction, this is a perfect medium to let yourself loose to some fun dance moves and titillating music. Of course the added bonus is to perform on stage and feel the pulsating upliftment. Thank you for being a part of my life. ” — Prabha Cheruvalath
“Hats off to Mona Khan Company. Every week they donate their time, love and energy at Jeena, to teach our kids the Mona Khan style of dancing. Kids love it and moms love it too, the moms get to learn dance, exercise and de-stress in another room while the kids are having a blast with their teacher in their room.” — Beejal Gajjar
“Mona Khan Company has selflessly worked with our special needs children at Jeena. The instructors are so enthusiastic and fun-loving. Their energy is contagious. Our kids just love their instructors and look forward to the class every week. Dance with Mona Khan Company has promoted social development of our kids and brought our families together. Mona has also integrated typical peer interaction, which is so very precious! We moms also love taking a break once every week and enjoying the dance class. We enjoy getting our share of exercise and connecting with the other moms. Simply awesome experience altogether. We love Mona Khan Company!” — Jeena Mom