2 girls with cerebral palsy move into limelight as part of Joffrey's 'Nutcracker' ballet

November 23, 2011
Chicago Tribune
Jeff Vorva

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Sophia Jablonski used to sit in her wheelchair and dream about taking dance classes, just like her younger sister, Stephanie.

"I wanted to be like her," said 11-year-old Sophia.

Sophia, who has cerebral palsy, eventually realized her dream and so much more. She started taking dance lessons at age 8, and this month she made her stage debut as an evil witch in the Children's Performance Company's ballet version of "Hansel and Gretel." Next month, she will hit the stage in Chicago when she dances in the Joffrey Ballet's "The Nutcracker."

"Everybody loved seeing me on stage," Sophia said of her "Hansel and Gretel" performance at Lockport High School. "It was so much fun to be on stage and see everybody smiling at me. … I love being cheered on.''

The young Orland Park resident will be one of two children with cerebral palsy performing in "The Nutcracker." Sophia will handle 10 evening performances, while 8-year-old Chicagoan Djuna Moore will dance during the 10 matinee shows. Djuna usually uses a walker and cane but will use a wheelchair during "The Nutcracker," per the script.

The late Robert Joffrey, the ballet company's founder, began incorporating at least one wheelchair dancer into the ballet years ago, and it has become a staple in the production ever since, said Joffrey children's ballet master Katie Garwood.

Garwood has been working with both Sophia and Djuna during rehearsals.

"They just remind me how every person has so much inside to offer. You don't realize it, but if you give them the opportunity they show that," Garwood said. "You realize how valuable everybody's life is."

The girls, who attend the Center for Independence through Conductive Education in Countryside, will perform in a party scene with other children toward the end of the ballet.

Neither suffers from stage fright. And both have seen their confidence soar through dance, their families said.

"I'm pretty comfortable on stage. I'm not nervous," said Djuna, who has sung in Christmas shows at her school, the Wilma Rudolph Learning Center. "When I'm performing, I'm confident I'll have fun."

Djuna's father, Christian, also is an entertainer, performing everything from bluegrass to rap in his career as a bass player.

"These girls are almost too young to know that the Joffrey Ballet is a worldwide organization," he said.

"If it was me, it would be like opening for Metallica. It would be like, 'Wow,'" Moore said. "I would be nervous. But they've been through a lot already.''

Sophia's mother, Naheda Jablonski, said 11 years ago she never could have imagined she would see her daughter on a ballet stage.

"She was the only surviving triplet and born at 25 weeks," Jablonski said. "I lost a boy and girl during that birth, but she survived and was 1 pound and 5 ounces. My goal was to keep her alive at that point. I never knew what she was going to be able to do. I knew nothing about cerebral palsy.

"What she has been able to do is amazing, and I'm proud of her."

Sophia's dance teacher Marianne Kyler, owner of Dance Studio Ltd. in Homer Glen, said Sophia was the inspiration for starting a dance class for special-needs children. The class, which meets on Wednesdays, includes children with cerebral palsy, spina bifida and autism.

Sophia, a sixth-grader at Central School in Tinley Park, also takes dance classes with students without disabilities. Homer Glen sisters Errin and Rachel Ward, ages 13 and 10, help Sophia in and out of her chair for stretching exercises. The three were in the "Hansel and Gretel" production together.

"A lot of the girls were amazed and proud that Sophia was up there. She is definitely an inspiration," said Errin.

"The Nutcracker" begins Dec. 9 in the Auditorium Theater, 50 E. Congress Parkway. For information, visit joffrey.org.

Dancing is not Sophia's only dream. She also wants to act and become a role model for kids with special needs.

Last year, she auditioned in Oak Brook for a role on the Nickelodeon TV show "iCarly" but didn't get the part.

"You know what? I was disappointed … but I still want to (audition) again," she said. "I want to try it until I do get on a show. I want a chance to do anything I can. I don't care what it is, I want to do it.''