Opposites united in their love of dance
Alexey Gavrilov grew up in Russia and is a strapping, university-trained performer with crisp, precise movements and impeccable posture.
Jocelin Meadows is a 10-year-old Everett girl who walks with a limp and can't move the fingers on her crooked right arm.
He speaks two languages interchangably; Jocelin sometimes stammers as her mouth tries to catch up with the words racing from her brain.
Gavrilov, 25, stands nearly two feet taller than his partner and is more than twice her age.
What unites them is a pure and deep-rooted love for music and dance.
In some ways, it's like a dream. Gavrilov has been her ballroom dance instructor for more than a year, making red-eye flights each weekend to and from New York after working Monday through Friday at Dance With Me Studios.
Jocelin's expressive face can't contain her joy when she performs with Gavrilov.
Tonight they plan to dance a waltz in front of hundreds of people during the annual Christmas Spectacular at the Everett Civic Auditorium.
Dr. Sanford Wright, an Everett neurosurgeon, and his wife, Olga Foraponva, an owner of Dorothy Jayne Dance Studio, have lined up an accomplished group of performers.
For all the talent set to take the stage, Wright said he would be hard-pressed to find a more inspirational performer than Jocelin, who is the same age as his own daughter.
"Sometimes, I get choked up just thinking about her," he said.
To appreciate Jocelin's love of dance is to understand the monumental challenges she has faced in her short, precarious life.
Jocelin was 14 months old when she was shaken by a baby-sitter in Hunstville, Ala. The damage to her brain was so severe that her mother, Barbara Meadows, was told she should start planning her daughter's funeral.
Jocelin spent three days on a ventilator after a surgery to try to repair her swollen brain. Doctors doubted she ever would walk or talk or develop simple life skills.
When Jocelin was 2, her seizures became so frequent -- more than two dozen a day -- that doctors in Seattle removed half of her brain. Hemispherectomy, as the surgery is called, is reserved for patients whose seizures can't be controlled by medicine or tamed by less invasive procedures.
The result in such cases is some paralysis on one side of the body.
Jocelin's life has been a series of surgeries -- 15 in the past six years alone. More are on the horizon.
Yet her outlook, as well as her self image, is as innocent as it is positive.
"I am really, really, really special," she told a visitor the other day.
There was a time more than a year ago when Jocelin reached a plateau in her physical therapy sessions at Providence Children's Center.
Barbara Meadows decided to try again to tap into her daughter's love of music and dance. The creative side of Jocelin's brain always had been a strength. Her desire to dance helped teach her to walk. She learned to go to the bathroom on her own only after her mom came up with a potty song. Along the way, as Jocelin learned songs, she'd sift through the words. That helped her build vocabulary for everyday conversations.
When Jocelin was 9, her mother began scouting around for dance classes. She found no takers.
Barbara Meadows brought her dilemma to Christie Tipton, manager of Providence Children's Center.
Tipton decided she'd try to barter with Wright: If he could find someone willing to teach Jocelin to dance, Tipton again would help with the Christmas Spectacular.
"He didn't know what he was getting into and I didn't know what I was getting into," Tipton said.
Nor did Gavrilov, who was recruited from New York to help teach dance in Snohomish County.
Gavrilov had not worked with a child with such profound special needs. He was nervous when he first met Jocelin in the fall of 2012. For starters, his student did not know her right from her left. She wore braces on her wrist and ankle. He worried about her balance and lack of coordination.
"I didn't know how she will take my information, how she will understand me and how I will understand her," Gavrilov said. "My first impression was I don't know what to do."
From tentative first steps, a bond formed and grew strong.
They danced a waltz at last year's Christmas Spectacular and received an ovation. The piece was written especially for Jocelin.
The success emboldened Tipton, Wright, Foraponva and company to begin a class for other children with special needs. They, too, are on the bill to perform at the Christmas Spectacular tonight with local firefighters and members of the Everett Naval JROTC as their partners.
Tipton said it is remarkable the progress, physically and socially, each child has made over the course of a year.
Barbara Meadows sees it in her daughter's desire to learn new dance steps, how Jocelin raises her leg up and down onto a couch to build strength and gain motion, and how she now helps her peers learn their steps and holds their hands when they're uncertain.
Last April, doctors at Children's Hospital in Seattle replaced a shunt to her brain on a Thursday. Two days later, she told them she had to leave to get to dance class, which she did.
Barbara Meadows now hears Gavrilov's words -- "Look at me, Don't look at the floor" -- coming from her daughter's mouth when she dances with firefighters unsure of their footwork.
For eight years, Barbara Meadows manipulated Jocelin's arm each day, stretching the limb her daughter could barely move. Recently, and against all medical expectations, Jocelin has been able to straighten her arm on her own.
"It's like her brain just rewired itself to realize there was an arm there," Barbara Meadows said.
Dance has been a powerful motivator.
"She is doing things that nobody really imagined she would be able to do," Tipton said. "With dance, she wasn't just in therapy. She was a princess."
In many ways, it has seemed a bit magical to Barbara Meadows.
In Wright and Foraponva, Jocelin and other children with disabilities have benefactors willing to provide them the gift of dance.
In the firefighters, JROTC students and her dancing classmates, Jocelin has made friends who seem like family.
In Gavrilov, she has found a compassionate teacher who shares her passion for dance.
His effect on her life has been profound.
"She tells other people they can dance with him, but he's her Alexey," her mother said.
Jocelin said she's looking forward to tonight's waltz across the Civic Auditorium stage with her beloved teacher.
"We're dancing like the stars," she said.
Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446; email@example.com.
Tickets for tonight's Christmas Spectacular at the Civic Auditorium, 2415 Colby Ave., can be purchased at the door for $15 and five cans of food. Doors open at 6 p.m. The event is sponsored by the Dorothy Jane Foundation and Studio.
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