Agnes McConlogue Ferro

Changing Lives

Physical Therapy Instructor Agnes McConlogue Ferro
introduces the beauty — and transformative power — of dance into her classes

By Ellen Cooke

Agnes Ferro with child in wheelchair and other staff in her group.

DREAM co-creators/directors Agnes and Kay Gayner, along with PT students Mo, Ashtyn and Dylan, posing with DREAM dancer Shira at the National Dance Institute Center for Learning and the Arts.

Pediatric physical therapy (PT) professor Agnes McConlogue Ferro has been dancing since she was 12: ballet, tap, flamenco, jazz.

She’s taught dance since her early 20s.

She had a brief stint with the Rockettes in Radio City Music Hall shows in the mid-1980s.

But the move that changed her life — and the lives of Stony Brook University (SBU) students and younger children with disabilities — occurred years later, when Ferro was working as a full-time physical therapist at an elementary school on the West Side of Manhattan.

The Perfect Pairing
“I knew I wanted to be a physical therapist from the day I saw a poster at Nassau Community College for a ‘pre-PT’ degree and touting the flexibility of a career that wasn’t a typical 9-5 office job,” she said. “And I knew without a doubt that dance had to be part of my plan to help children with disabilities when the National Dance Institute (NDI) came to PS 199 where I was teaching. That’s when I realized the powerful impact of collaboration … between PT, dance teachers, musicians and, most importantly, the children in the room. The smiles on their young faces, the amazing progress they could make, and how much they enjoyed participating and being together was all too special to ignore.”

In 2014, Ferro set the dream to pair PT and dance in motion when she co-founded a program of inclusive workshops called the DREAM (Dancers Realize Excellence Through Arts and Movement) Project, in collaboration with NDI and in partnership with Kay Gayner and Aileen Barry. The trio’s relationship began in the late 1990s at PS 199 where Ferro was the PT, Gayner was (and still is) the teaching artist and Barry was in program development. Today, Gayner is the artistic director and Barry is the senior director of education and outreach, both at NDI.

“NDI coming to PS 199 is what changed everything and the vision for NDI’s DREAM Project was founded off of what we created together at that school,” said Ferro. Twice a year, children ages eight and up, with and without disabilities, rehearse and perform together in a unique setting that’s changing the lives of students, family members, instructors and audiences … one dance step at a time.

Ferro said DREAM was modeled after similar NDI programs in which “everyone was welcomed to participate.” And that concept, Ferro explained, is based off the pedagogy created by NDI founder Jacques d’Amboise in the 1970s.

She said that of all her experiences past and present the most fulfilling has been witnessing and working to foster “the transformative power of dance” for children with developmental disabilities — a practice and philosophy she’s been integrating into the pediatric PT classes she teaches at SBU.

“Nothing has ever come close to watching children dance together in an inclusive environment in front of an audience,” Ferro said. “And there’s something magical that happens when children of all abilities are in a room interacting with their age-matched peers.”

She added that “even more beautiful is what happens after they leave that room and go out into the world. I want my PT students to know, feel and experience this too and to recognize they can make a real difference in people’s lives.”

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Ferro demonstrates technique with students Dylan, Mo and Ashtyn.

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Ferro works with dancers during the DREAM Project. Photo courtesy of NDI.

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Ferro and DREAM dancer Avery at the ballet barre. Photo courtesy of NDI.

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Co-creators Ferro and Gayner in an impromptu demonstration. Photo courtesy of NDI.

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Classroom DREAMs
For all these reasons, Ferro talks about DREAM and inclusivity in her courses, incorporating lessons she says she is continuously learning from children with and without disabilities into the lessons she’s teaching as a part-time PT instructor in SBU’s School of Health Professions. She emphasizes how movement through music, dance and group participation is proven to help PT patients reach their individual goals — the subject of her current PhD dissertation work on DREAM. Her three-article thesis explores the perspectives of children with developmental disabilities, their parents and age-matched peer participants. And she invites her SBU students to take part in DREAM workshops, both virtually and live, which is having a ripple effect on the lives and careers of these practitioners of tomorrow.

Mohammed (‘Mo’) Islam is a third-year PT student whose career path was validated and strengthened by what he’s heard in Ferro’s classroom and experienced firsthand on the DREAM dance floor. Islam admitted he’s a nondancer who feels challenged to move “on the beat.” But when it came to dancing with the children, none of that mattered. “Working with kids has always been where my heart is,” he said. “Participating in DREAM sparked my interest in being involved with children with disabilities. Agnes’ passion for her work is contagious and I’m inspired now to be an advocate for all people with disabilities.”

Islam also got to see how physical therapy can be enhanced by dance movements, with motions the children would typically perform in PT as treatment incorporated into their dance routines. “It can open up the body to be more flexible, and it can be a fun, interactive and joyous experience. The kids were also so supportive to each other and to me — someone they could dance circles around!”

Islam’s experience exemplifies Ferro’s strong beliefs in the value of true inclusion. “It’s as powerful an experience for children who can participate alongside their age-matched peers for maybe the first time as it is for kids who learn to support, empathize with and cheer on others who may not possess their capabilities,” she said. “That’s an extremely powerful lesson for all of us, at any age.”

Krina Desai, who graduated with her Doctor of Physical Therapy degree from SBU in 2015 and is a current practicing pediatric physical therapist, said her career trajectory was also fueled by Ferro’s fervor.

“Volunteering at DREAM was the turning point where I decided to dedicate myself to helping children with disabilities,” said Desai. “It was a space where all children could be free to express themselves. And when we brought the virtual program to the inpatient rehab facility where I was working, there was such excitement in the air whenever it was time for dance class. It was also amazing to see the little things that happen. One nonverbal child would smile from ear to ear, even laughing for a full hour, having the best time ever.”

Desai keeps in touch with Ferro and will return for her third year as Ferro’s teaching assistant Spring 2023 in the HAY 509 Pediatric Physical Therapy courses Ferro leads. “She exudes so much care and compassion. I saw right from the start the impact she had on families’ lives because of her character. I just wanted to be her, and I told myself,maybe I can do this.’ Her influence made me want to be a really good therapist,” she said.

Visions for the Future
Ferro feels strongly that this evolving story is not about her. “I’ve been in front of the stage, but my happy place is behind the curtain, trying to help others reach their potential. They’re the stars.” 

With tears in her eyes, she said, “I don’t see myself as a trailblazer, but as someone who stands on shoulders that just happen to be small shoulders, some of whom are still with us, some who aren’t.”

Visions that dance through her head are based on firsthand experiences that have happened and continue to happen. They include kids with disabilities happily racing each other in their wheelchairs down school hallways, performing on some of the biggest stages in New York City (sometimes with a surprise cartwheel thrown in), working alongside peers who are saying, “You’ve got this.” That’s what motivates her each day to keep doing what she’s doing and spreading the word through her teaching. 

It’s also what keeps her dreaming of even bigger, brighter opportunities on the horizon.

“My hope is that more and more future physical therapists offer inclusive practices that are appropriate for their communities. I also hope the DREAM program is able to expand in scale, so it’s offered beyond the existing Harlem site or online. And that we’re able to offer more course variety — for beginners, returning students, etc. That’s all part of the dream and I see no end in sight!” Ferro said that SBU — with support from the School of Health Professions, the Office of the Vice President for Research and the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion area — did receive funding for an initiative of hers tentatively titled “Building Bridges to Community-based Inclusion for Children with Developmental Disabilities.” The conference would be held at Stony Brook in October 2023.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The next onsite DREAM sessions will take place in February and Summer 2023 (details to be determined), centered around NDI’s theme of a tribute to Maya Angelouexploring movement and creating choreography that aligns with her life, poetry, advocacy and talent. During COVID, Ferro and what she calls “the NDI DREAM team” stayed on their toes to keep the DREAM Project alive and thriving through DREAM Project@Home.  

Ellen Cooke is associate director of internal communications for SBU’s Office of Marketing and Communications.