By Michelle Trauring
At 5 years old, Alexandria Vega is a firecracker. At age 8, Jake Ehrlich is a trailblazer. As teenagers, Caitlin McConnell is hilarious and outgoing, and Veronica Siaba is opinionated and self-aware, both with an undeniable charisma and charm.
Together, they are the core group of featured dancers in Catherine Tambini’s documentary “Perfectly Normal for Me.” And they all live with cerebral palsy — a diagnosis they refuse to let stop them.
“I just want to be a normal kid,” Jake says in the film, which premieres on Tuesday night on WORLD Channel. “That’s my lifetime goal.”
Founded by Sag Harbor resident Joann Ferrara, her Queens-based program, Dancing Dreams, gives students with a physical disability the opportunity to dance. With the help of volunteers, they tap, sashay and twirl their way across the floor — which is where the Hampton Bays director first met them, camera in hand.
Alexandria and her twin sister, Maya, were immediately curious, and charged over to the filmmaker.
“I have a camera!” Maya declared.
“Oh?” Tambini asked. “What kind of a camera?”
“I have a pink camera!” she answered.
“And I have a dark pink camera!” Alexandria piped up, not to be outdone by her twin.
Tambini was immediately smitten, she said. They were the first children to welcome her in, and from there, the whole film opened up for her in an incredible way, she said. For over a year, she captured the lives of these four dancers, following them to parks, playgrounds and physical therapy, and visiting them at home during their day-to-day lives.
“Because I was there so much, they got really used to me,” Tambini said. “At the first screening that I showed them, Jake turned to me and he goes, ‘How did you get all that footage of me?’ and I said, ‘Don’t you remember? I followed you around with a camera for a long time,’ and he didn’t remember. It was so funny. He just didn’t notice I was there so much.”
For Tambini, the filming process marked her first interactions with the physically disabled, she said. Seeing cerebral palsy up close — which is a group of disorders that affect a person’s ability to move and maintain balance and posture — was an eye-opening experience, she said, and has shifted her perception of “disability” entirely.
“I was always generous, but I never really considered so much the person who had the disability,” she said. “And now I’m totally aware and trying to be inclusive in my own ways. They’re so self-accepting, and they so love each other. They’re so gentle and so kind with each other. It’s a whole different perspective from kids who are bullies. You just see the love that they have toward one another, and the patience and the acceptance, and that really affected me in a big way.
“I feel that my life has been enriched by having been associated with them and knowing them as I do now.”
After one particular class with Jenifer Ringer, who was then a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, she sits down with the kids for an informal chat when a recent review, and criticism of her body, comes up. “Their job is to criticize dance,” Veronica tells her, outraged, “not body image.”
“She got really mad at the critic who was criticizing Jenifer’s body, and they wrote a letter. They wrote a letter to the critic,” Tambini said. “She’s very politically aware, but she’s still this kid. She’s very almost militantly aware of what should be. They’re wonderful advocates for their community.”
The hour-long film, which will premiere as part of the award-winning public television series “America ReFramed,” is programmed to mark National Disability Employment Awareness Month, which felt like a natural fit, Tambini said.
“As a filmmaker, I like to show the humanity in the human,” she said. “I like to find the thing that connects us and makes us see into somebody else’s life.”
Fulfilling that mission, the film is also scheduled to screen during an assembly at Jake’s school, she said. The young boy doesn’t like when his peers stare at him, and the director said she hopes the documentary will help them “understand what he goes through, and he’s all for it.”
“I’ve had people come to me after seeing the film and say that they are the ones who are transformed,” she said. “They were expecting to see transformation on screen, but what’s happening is they’re transformed. They’ll never look at people with disabilities the same way again. They’re seeing that disability fades away and they see the person and the value.
“I’m hoping for gigantic transformations all over the country as the film screens,” she continued. “This film could do a lot of good, and I’m hoping that it will.”
“Perfectly Normal for Me,” a film by Catherine Tambini, premieres on Tuesday, October 29, at 8 p.m. on WORLD Channel and worldchannel.org. For more information, visit perfectlynormalformedoc.com.