About halfway through Catherine Tambini’s sweet-natured documentary Perfectly Normal for Me, about a group of young boys and girls who attend Dancing Dreams in Bayside, a nonprofit that teaches children with medical or physical challenges to dance and become leaders, I was already thinking how I was going to start this review; I was going to call the film “inspirational.” But I quickly changed my mind when sixteen-year-old Veronica Siaba says in the movie that they’re all “so sick of being called inspirational for just basically living.” In the sixty-minute film, director and producer Tambini and cinematographer Matt Porwoll follow four kids as they go about their daily life, going to school, playing at home and outside with friends and family, and preparing for the annual Dancing Dreams show: five-year-old Alexandria Vega, eight-year-old Jake Ehrlich, twelve-year-old Caitlin McConnell, and Veronica. The boys and girls who attend Dancing Dreams have such diseases as spina bifida, cerebral palsy, and muscular dystrophy, but they are determined to not let that stop them from dancing. (Alexandria’s twin, Maya, does not have any diseases but is very close to her sister and is allowed to join her; meanwhile, Caitlin’s twin, Allison, who also has no serious muscular ailments, is a Dance Helper.) Some can walk on their own, some need help, and others are confined to wheelchairs — except when at Dancing Dreams. “I didn’t want it to be just another program where they sat in a wheelchair and danced in the wheelchair,” organization founder and physical therapist Joann Ferrara explains. “I wanted everyone who could get up to get up, everyone to do the best and the most they could.” Each child has his or her own Dance Helper, usually a high school student who works with that boy or girl for several years.
Emmy nominee Tambini (The State of Arizona, Farmingville) speaks with several Dance Helpers, including Morgan King, Shirley Huang, Kara O’Connell, and Shi’Ann Ottley Cleveland. “They don’t have to feel different when they come here,” Cleveland says. “They can just be themselves, and that’s why I love it here.” Tambini also meets with Maya and Alexandria’s parents, Laura Ariza and Rene Vega; Jake’s mother, Natalie; and Caitlin’s parents, Steve and Kara, all of whom are dedicated to their children’s health and happiness. One phrase that keeps popping up in describing the children is “strong-willed”; it is clear from the start that these are extraordinary kids who don’t want to be identified merely by their illness, as they have so much more to offer the world. “I just want to be a normal kid. That’s my lifetime goal,” Jake says. “I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Veronica adds. Perfectly Normal for Me is screening in the tenth annual ReelAbilities Film Festival on March 9 at the Marlene Meyerson JCC in Manhattan, March 11 (free with RSVP) at the merged Central Queens Y and the Samuel Field Y and the Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington, and March 12 (free with RSVP) at Lincoln Center’s David Rubenstein Atrium. All shows will be followed by a Q&A with members of the cast and crew. ReelAbilities runs March 8-14 and features a comedy night, dance, a fashion panel, art exhibitions, a puppet show, other special events, and thirty films dealing with disabilities.