OREM — When 14-year-old Emarie Thomas was in fourth grade, her mom taught her class ballroom dancing.
Among the members of her class was a girl named Mary, who had special needs. The school's principal had urged the other kids to include Mary and be kind to her — which Emarie says they all did.
Then, the class showed off their dance skills during a performance.
"After the performance, her parents came up to us in tears and were like, 'I just couldn't pick her out. She just felt like everybody else,'" Emarie told the Deseret News.
She says that experience affected her, so much so that earlier this year, the teen started a weekly dance class for adults with special needs at the TURN Community Services art center in Orem this spring.
And she recruited her sisters and mom as co-teachers.
On Friday evening, a group of about 12 dancers of all abilities, a few wearing elf hats and Christmas apparel, flowed into the studio and greeted each other, ready to practice.
"Jingle Bell Rock" played as the dancers warmed up, first stretching and then performing exercises across the floor.
Emarie and her sisters — Glory, 17, and Mary Elizabeth, 20 — led the students in the warm ups and a choreographed routine, while their mom, Noel Thomas, danced with the students.
As the group practiced twirling from one side of the room to the other, the teachers reminding them to "spot" a point on the wall, student Wesley Hogan wore a huge smile as he said, "Spin like a top, spin like a dreidel."
He said his favorite part of attending the dance class is "I feel better when I'm dancing," especially to Michael Jackson songs.
Darren Ford, a student, also said his favorite part of the lessons is, of course, "the dancing" and the chance "to get to know people."
Lenny Jones agreed that the dancing is the best part.
While most of the students in the studio Friday joined in the dancing, some watched and smiled. One woman held a pink marker and a coloring book, offering them to friends to take a turn coloring.
Dave Hennessey, TURN executive director, said the lessons give the students an opportunity to do something they otherwise "never would do and maybe never would have done."
"I think there's the social aspect of them coming together, how much they enjoy being together and learning together. And then there's the skill development that they get," Hennessey said.
"Then there's the friendship that they have with the Thomas family. They love them. They love each other," he added. "And the recognition that they've gotten from being in public and performing, that's a very neat thing."
Since the class formed in spring, they have since performed at several community events.
Though starting the class was Emarie's idea, service seems to be a family tradition for the Thomases.
Glory started Orem Kindness Week when she was 14. She said when she teaches dance to those with special needs, "They just teach me so much, and I just have the best time."
"They've really taught me how to love. Because every time I see them outside of dance class, they're always like, 'I missed you! I missed you!'" she recalled.
"And they always come up and give me a big hug, and so they really taught me how to be selfless and how to not worry about little things, but just to love people. They've also taught me to be patient and just be very understanding and compassionate, because sometimes they need a little extra help."1 comment on this story
Emarie said the activity helps her bond with her family. "It makes me so happy."
"One day, I was really stressed about school. I had a bad grade in a class … and it was a Friday. I was like, 'I just want to go home and relax, and watch TV,'" she recalled.
"But then I was like, 'Oh no, I have to come here.' I was like so negative, that I have to come here. But then after the class, I just got so much happier because these kids are joy. They're just pure joy," Emarie said. "I love them so much."