By Ukee Washington

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PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — This summer, a veteran South Jersey dance instructor started a class to bring people of different abilities together with a little ballroom.

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On a Wednesday evening in Haddonfield, ballroom dance instructor Gene LaPierre is getting his class moving to merengue, counting off the steps: “Circle, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.”

LaPierre started this weekly class in the summer of 2018. It’s specifically for adults with special needs.

“I like the merengue because you get to move around a lot,” said Alexis Reante Yeatts of Cherry Hill.

Every ten minutes or so, Gene switches up the lesson, teaching a new dance like the Hustle.

“It holds their interest because it’s always changing,” LaPierre said. “They’re adding new steps and new music.”

“It’s fun, you know,” William McAnurn said. “It gives me something to do.”

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A grant helped fund LaPierre’s time, Grace Episcopal Church donated the space, and the $10 class fee is going to Dance Haddonfield, a non-profit spreading the joy of dance.

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They wanted to give special needs adults the opportunity to socialize, “changing partners and just holding hands and letting somebody into their space,” LaPierre said. “Having autism and special needs, trusting that person in their space, that’s a big thing, and making eye contact.”

Christina Bendel, whose son R.J. is a student, is impressed with how LaPierre guides the group.

“His patience is second to none with them,” Bendel said. “And he enjoys it. You can tell. He’s not just doing it to do it.”

Another student, Shawna Pilzer, said Gene “has this way of talking to people with special needs. I really like how he talks with us. He doesn’t talk with us as if we’re different. He talks to us as if we’re all equals.”

“When you dance, your life gets fuller,” LaPierre said, and he says that’s true whatever your ability.

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The classes start again the second week of January. You can contact LaPierre through his studio at 856-307-9464.

Ukee Washington