Dancing to Dreams At the Cinderella Ball

About 100 participants danced this Saturday in the annual Cinderella Ball, a prom for students with disabilities. At a prom like no other, the labels, insecurities and inhibitions that are ingrained in high school life lost their footing on the dance floor.
By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 2, 2008

Stella Jackson had imagined this moment for weeks. Her everyday ponytail had been transformed into a cascade of curls in a two-hour salon visit that morning. Now, she glided across the ballroom, teal gown shimmering.

With a big smile she'd wear all night, the 20-year-old senior at Prince William County's Freedom High School leaned into the touch-screen computer attached to her wheelchair.

"I'm happy," she typed. "Sexy."

Then she gave a mischievous nod toward the 17-year-old standing nearby, the young man she would dance with for hours. "Aaron said wow."

Stella, who has cerebral palsy, soon was shimmying and swaying to the booming music of Hillary Duff and Mary J. Blige at the Cinderella Ball, an annual prom for students with disabilities held Saturday night in downtown Washington. Under a swirl of colored lights, girls in sparkly dresses tossed aside high-heeled shoes. Boys in tuxedos pulled off ties. But at a prom like no other, the labels, insecurities and inhibitions that are part of high school life for all students also were shed on that dance floor.

Cari Cockrell, 14, who has Down syndrome, took off her wig and let loose to the "Cha Cha Slide." About 100 students with disabilities were there, with parents and other friends. No one noticed the occasional meltdown, when the loud music or crowd became a little too much. It didn't matter that some students needed help feeding themselves. Couples held hands. Wheelchairs twirled.

"I think the disabilities disappear when they are all together," said Kim Cockrell, Cari's mom.

Helen McCormick, a former Arkansas schoolteacher, held the first Cinderella Ball three years ago at the House, a youth center she runs with her son Todd in a Woodbridge warehouse. They wanted it to be special, glamorous. About 78 students attended.

Last year, the dance outgrew the building, spreading into a tent in the parking lot. This year, during a months-long push for donations, McCormick marched into the Willard InterContinental asking for whatever decorations could be spared, perhaps "almost-dead flowers." She walked out with a free ballroom.

McCormick and the students who come to the House after school to do homework and shoot baskets raised about $100,000 for the ball. They went door-to-door and stood outside convenience stores collecting change. Invitations went out through Prince William and Fairfax county schools, and word spread to students elsewhere in the region.

In the weekends leading up to the dance, girls came to the House to pick donated dresses from racks. Volunteer seamstresses made sure they fit just right, and there were tables of jewelry, shoes and evening bags. For the boys, there were ties and crisp handkerchiefs.

There was magic in anticipation. When she took her gown home, Stella snapped a photo and e-mailed it to her physical therapist. Ben Bittner, 16, a student at Prince William's Hylton High who is mildly mentally retarded, practiced dance moves every day.

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