No Place Like The Dance Studio

Peggy Spellman Hoey

Kaitlyn Matlak took her partner’s hand, twirled around, then gracefully stretched out her arm, her pinky finger delicately extended into the air. She was dancing inside a small studio at the Peconic Ballet Theatre in Riverhead one recent Sunday afternoon.

She looked straight ahead into the mirror and smiled, and with good reason. Matlak, 23, of Jamesport, always wanted to learn ballet but wasn’t able to take a class until she found the Dance Express program.

The program, which is run by the Peconic Ballet Foundation, teaches ballet to adults like Matlak with varying experience levels, including intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Happiness has been a dance floor since Matlak registered for class.

“All I like about it is that I get to be free when I dance,” said Matlak, spreading her arms and then raising them to the ceiling. “It’s being graceful.”

The roughly two-year-old program is now held twice yearly, in the fall and spring, and culminates in a performance with the rest of the company, in this case, a neo-classical ballet version of The Wizard of Oz, tomorrow at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center.

Matlak and about a dozen other young dancers are performing the roles of enchanted poppies protagonist Dorothy Gale and her three companions meet along the way.

Over 10 weeks in hour-long sessions, the dancers learned portions of their routine with little bits of ballet technique thrown in — an arched foot here, a plié there — for a more polished performance.

They practiced their line formations, joining hands for a circle, and now that it’s close to showtime, curtseys for the women and bows for the men.

Peconic Ballet Foundation Director Christiana Bitonti, who has a background in counseling, said it has been a dream of hers to create an open opportunity for anyone interested in dancing.

“I wanted everybody to be able to perform and dance and to be able to express themselves,” she said.

Through a series of coincidences, she met up with Matt Kuriloff, who runs the Creative Arts Program for East End Disabilities Associates in Riverhead, and the two put their heads together, first for a pilot program with a few members of the CAP program, and then the final product.

Kuriloff views his job as part of the civil rights movement, by bringing people with developmental disabilities into the community. Bitonti has made that happen within the arts community, he explained, noting the Dance Express dancers will perform on the stage in a production with professional dancers and school-age students from the arts community.

“It’s that true integration,” he said.

For other young dancers in the program, the reasons they continue to dance are simpler than Matlak’s. There were no grand dreams of the stage.

Jamie Gholson, a 24-year-old Flanders resident who also participates in the CAP program, joined Dance Express at the suggestion of Matlak, who is his girlfriend.

“I just like dancing. I can’t say anything more than that,” he said.

Likewise, Nicholas Hallock, 25, of Flanders is also enjoying his time in the program. Dancing makes him feel good, he says.

“I like to dance a lot,” he said.

Hallock has Koolen de Vries Syndrome. The program helped improve his coordination where other therapies haven’t and his involvement improved his social life, said his mother, Diana Giffin. For a time after graduating school, Hallock was somewhat isolated as Giffin looked for a program for him, that is, until she found the Creative Arts Program and Dance Express.

“This is where he met his true friends,” she said.

Dance teacher Josie McSwane, who is leading the dancers through their routine, said dancing has become therapeutic for them.

“It makes my day. It really does,” she said.

Dance teacher Gabrielle Zeppieri, who also has a background as a school psychologist, said she believes dance is a good way for the dancers to destress and it helps their confidence, reducing any self-consciousness.

“We laugh because we can be goofballs,” she said, adding, “They are not afraid of looking silly.”

Kuriloff said the program also helps the dancers build life skills and develop mathematical aptitude because there is a lot of counting in the numbers that are performed.

“That’s all of the bonus stuff, beyond the fact that it’s just fun and exhilarating,” he said.

Bitonti said she is looking to see the program expand with the addition of children sometime in the future.

“I think there is more to come for us. I think this is just the beginning, because they are so focused and really into it,” she said.

For the students of Dance Express, there is no place like the dance studio, it’s like home now.

The curtain goes up on The Wizard of Oz at 7 PM. The Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center is located at 76 Main Street. Tickets can be purchased for $15 apiece from Eventbrite.

For more information about the Dance Express program, call 631-591-1539 or visit

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