BROOKSVILLE — As recorded music cranked up one recent evening, Penny Bryson led a dozen students, ages 4 to 11, in a line onto the dance floor.
"We're going to start off with balance," she said. "Right foot and up. Hold it." Pause. "Left foot forward. Back. Repeat."
The routine included front, back and side kicks, then Bryson instructed, "Now, jazz it all around."
That the students were learning fancy footwork was obvious. Not so apparent was that the youngsters were also improving their reading skills.
It's all part of the Reading in Rhythm program offered at Therapy Beat, a combination dance studio and private school that helps students overcome obstacles such as autism, dyslexia and attention deficit disorder.
Founder and instructor Bryson, 41, explained those conditions are linked to the brain's cerebellum, which affects bodily coordination, balance, rhythm and timing.
By focusing on foot movement using dance and music, the cerebellum is retrained, added teacher Bonnie Hamby, 39. The retraining enables the brain to better translate and connect letters and words of reading.
"When you attack (coordination and balance, rhythm and timing), you help children establish pathways that allow their brain to read for life," Bryson said, adding that the neurologically challenged usually have very high IQs.
"This is where the rhythm comes in,'' she said. "If they don't get the beat they won't get it in reading."
Bryson and Hamby both began as speech therapists in Hernando schools. Bryson has a doctoral degree in clinical speech. Hamby has a master's degree in reading.
"We can train them to slow down or speed up by the music," Hamby explained.
Dancing does even more. It builds self-confidence and poise, respect for themselves and others, gives the students a sense of being noticed in a good way.
Luke Herman, 11, of Spring Hill, a Therapy Beat enrollee since January, said, "I did good in reading last year. I know I'll do better this year." The second-grader's motor skills have sharpened so much that Luke has moved into the third- and fourth-grader group.
Sydney Hamby, also a Spring Hill 11-year-old, improved her reading ability to move up two grade levels. "I'm reading 170 words a minute," she said proudly.
That's a big change, said her mother, Bonnie Hamby. Hampered by dyslexia, Sydney "would shut down every day because she was so embarrassed," said her mother.
Most school-age children attend two-hour evening group sessions, taking part in four hours of dance and reading instruction a week. One-on-one coaching is available. Ten students ages 10 to 12 are enrolled this year full-time in the certified private school.
Tuitions generally are fully covered by insurance, Bryson said. Depending on a student's needs, sessions are assessed from $25 to $100. "It's something we work out with the families," she said.
Back at the studio, the students completed their dance warm-up then sat before a screen that flashed letters and combinations of letters. Annabelle Chamberlain, a 4-year-old from Brooksville, correctly spoke the syllables of five combinations. The class erupted in applause.
Such bonding among children with shared challenges is a big part of the program's success.
"You get to hang out with your friends and it's not really strict," explained Sydney Hamby.
Eleven-year-old Alondra Castro of Spring Hill said the program hits all the high notes. "I learned my vowels, to dance and to read faster," Castro said
Beth Gray can be contacted at email@example.com.