from Billings Gazette by Donna Healy:
A sense of belonging helps smooth any teen’s path through high school.
For sophomore Hannah Rogers, the West High junior varsity dance team is a spot where she feels she fits in.
Although she stays on the sideline when the team dances during halftime performances, she knows the moves and the music.
Hannah, who has Down syndrome, started practicing with the team during the summer after eighth grade, said Tracy Stanaway, the team’s coach.
She could memorize the steps, but her movements were just a bit slower than the team’s. So instead of performing, Hannah became the JV team’s manager.
“She’s got instant friends on the dance team,” Stanaway said.
Hannah calls them “my girls,” and her devotion to the team is apparent.
“She shows up at every practice, every game, every fundraiser, everything,” Stanaway said.
“I have to be there for my dance team,” Hannah said.
Before each performance, Hannah makes sure team members remove their jewelry, pull back their hair and position their uniforms securely to comply with Montana High School Association rules. During practice, if the girls are chattering, Hannah lets them know they need to quiet down.
“Sometimes they listen to her better than they listen to me,” Stanaway said.
So far, Hannah has rejected the idea of performing with the JV dance team, but she sometimes dances with them during practice sessions.
“When we’re warming up, that’s usually when a song comes on that she jumps up and dances to,” Stanaway said.
“Tonight, Tonight” is one of her favorites.
Hannah also practices with the Special Olympics dance team, which will perform this summer during the opening ceremonies at the Special Olympics Montana Summer Games.
“When I was a kid, I loved to dance and I loved to sing,” Hannah said. “It’s way fun.”
That delight comes across when she dances.
“I can just tell that she absolutely loves music and dancing and how free she can be,” Stanaway said.
Volunteering as the dance team’s manager has helped build Hannah’s confidence, said her mother, Suzanne Rogers.
“It’s opened her up. She’s more social. She knows a lot of people,” Suzanne Rogers said. “She is very comfortable in that school environment.”
Since Hannah was little, she has been friends with Joey Lucara, who was the West High football team’s manager for five years. Lucara, who also has Down syndrome, graduated in May but has remained involved with the football team.
“They still have him come on the sidelines, just to be there cheering them on,” said Joey’s mother, Lisa Lucara. “He’s kind of a sideline fixture at the games.”
Joey, who is 20, works in the shipping department at Energy Labs. A former member of the school’s cross-country team, he remains a fervent fan of all West High sports teams. At basketball games, he sometimes sells 50-50 raffle tickets for the booster club.
“He knows so many people that he can walk up in the crowd and they’ll generally buy tickets from him,” his mother said.
The pair went to TWIRP and the prom together, and Stanaway hopes to get Hannah and Joey to do a dance number together.
“There’s so much joy when she and Joey dance,” Stanaway said.
She envisions choreographing them dancing on the gym floor surrounded by the dance team.