BAYSIDE, N.Y.–Cerebral palsy presents a wide array of challenges for those who have to contend with the illness. However, one young woman isn’t letting her physical limitations stop her from dancing and dreaming.
Rayhana Elharji is an ambitious 17-year-old from Brooklyn, New York. The National Honor Society student aspires to be a bioengineer, and wants to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for her undergraduate studies.
Since 2011, Rayhana has been participating in a program called Dancing Dreams. Executive Director Joann Ferrara is a pediatric physical therapist; she started the organization after a little girl told her she wished she could be a dancer but nobody wanted to work with her.
The organization, which became a nonprofit in 2008, provides dance classes and performance opportunities for children and young adults with medical or physical challenges. Pediatric physical therapists teach the classes, and each dancer has a helper to assist them. The program has been very influential for the participants.
“It helps their self esteem. It shows them they are capable of doing things they thought they might not be able to do,” Ferrara explained.
Rayhana found out about Dancing Dreams after speaking with a friend, and was immediately interested. Not only was she curious about dance, but the wise high school student was looking toward her future.
“First I thought it’ll be fun, and it is but now besides the fun I think it will look good on my college applications,” Rayhana told The Epoch Times.
“[I] immediately loved her. She was just happy, and bright, and thrilled to be dancing,” Ferrara recalled.
As a young woman with Cerebral palsy, Rayhana faces a variety of obstacles. However, she doesn’t pity herself. Rather, she challenges her self with gusto.
“Of course, everyone has challenges, but with my determination I overcome them,” she said.
Furthermore, the young woman maintains a sense of humor.
“The most fun part is being out of this damn chair and moving,” Rayhana said with a smile.
Rayhana and her dancing helper Gabby are good friends, and dancing has brought them even closer together.
“By the end of the first [class] we were already like best friends. We have a bond that will last through the years. We joke, and like teenagers we complain about schoolwork and stuff. She’s like the big sister I’ve never had,” Rayhana said.
A Therapeutic Effect
For Rayhana, dancing has both physical and psychological benefits. Like other kinds of exercise, it provides a valuable outlet for her.
“Dancing always helped me relieve my stress of getting good grades for my future. I’m working towards going to MIT and dancing helps me relax my body and mind,” Rayhana said. “This will surely surprise you but I’m a bundle of nerves and my muscles are stiff as a board so dancing helps me relax my muscles and brain.”
Ferrara is proud of Rayhana, and has developed a close relationship with her over the years. Furthermore, the experience has had a profound impact on both of them.
“Watching her grow and mature into a beautiful young woman she is today is nothing but joyous,” Ferrara said.
“She’s tough. She goes to her goals, whatever it takes. She loves helping people … she’s always happy,” Rayhana’s mother Aicha Elkoufa said. “I’m proud of her.”
Rayhana’s personal experience has made her empathetic towards others with physical limitations. She also has greater ambitions, like her goal to become a bioengineer.
“Well I’m disabled so who’s better than a person who knows what it is like to have a disability? And just to be clear, I’m going to own a biotechnology business empire,” Rayhana said. “Accomplishments that I make drive myself to work harder and strive higher.”