1. Life & Culture

Patel Conservatory dancer with Down syndrome will share her passion at a national convention

TEMPLE TERRACE — The walls of Alicia and Arbey Arbelaez's home are lined with pictures of their daughter, Thalia, dancing in brightly colored leotards and trajes de enca, or flamenco outfits, the same ones that are now stuffed into Alicia's ever-shrinking closet space. Thalia's room has a collection of trophies and medals, some for cheerleading but most for dance, and several worn-out pointe shoes hang above her desk.

Outside, a sign emblazoned on the wall that says "Villa Thalia" makes it clear who the star of the household is.

Thalia has been the light of her parents' eyes since she was born in Tampa 20 years ago. But next week, when she speaks at the annual convention of the National Down Syndrome Congress in Denver about her passion for dance, her parents hope she will light passion into others on a national stage.

• • •

When Thalia takes the stage, she's never nervous.

"Not at all," she said. "Never ever. I feel happy on stage."

She was born to perform, Arbey said.

"If she doesn't have an audience, it won't be Thalia," he said.

But the young woman who now spends countless hours every week practicing ballet, tap, jazz, flamenco, tango, modern and belly dancing was not expected to ever walk.

When Alicia gave birth to Thalia, doctors handed her a baby who looked different, she said. They told her the baby had Down syndrome, which is a chromosomal abnormality, and rattled off a list of health complications she would have. They told her the baby would have six months to live.

Alicia said she and Arbey cried.

"But if God left her here," Alicia remembered thinking with her husband after many tears and prayers, "we're going to do the best for her."

• • •

Alicia said doctors told her that they could either operate on Thalia's heart or her legs, which were dislocated when she was born, before the age of 6 months, but not both.

Alicia said the obvious choice was the heart, but doctors told her Thalia would never learn to walk.

But Thalia did.

And as she held onto surfaces and moved about, Arbey said he began to notice something special about Thalia every time music played.

"Her heartbeat was aligned with the musical beats," he said.

From then on, he said, he would try to reinforce her talent by making her move to the music.

When Thalia was 3, her parents found a tap dance class nearby and considered enrolling her.

As they watched other dancers through the window, Alicia remembered nervously thinking that Thalia probably wouldn't be able to keep up with them.

They asked if Thalia could join anyway, she said.

"The teacher never said no," Alicia said. "She just said, 'We're going to try.' "

So Thalia did.

"That teacher told us she has very good rhythm," Alicia said. "She said, 'Bring her next week.' "

And for the next five years, Thalia continued to dance. Her teacher told her parents to consider putting her in a ballet class, too, which surprised her parents.

But the ballet teacher said the same thing, Alicia said: "We're going to let her try."

So Thalia did, and after a few years there, her aspirations — and talent — began to grow.

When Thalia was 9, she auditioned at the Patel Conservatory at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts. She also auditioned with the Orlando Ballet and Moscow Ballet, which was putting on The Nutcracker in St. Petersburg that winter.

She was cast. Her parents were shocked.

"We were thinking it was maybe because of her condition," Alicia said. "But the teacher said, 'No, she has skill. She has technique. We didn't select her because she has Down syndrome, we selected her because she has technique.' "

Thalia made the audition cut for four consecutive years, after which she made the permanent roll.

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Thalia's daily schedule centers around dance.

She graduated from high school at the Pepin Academy last month, but her days are still busy. Mondays and Wednesdays are ballet at the Straz Center, and Tuesdays are belly dancing at home. Thursdays are strength training, and while she doesn't have class on Friday, she practices every dance, every day, Thalia said. She signed up for musical theater, too, but because of some speech difficulties, her mom said she didn't want her to get too frustrated and pulled her out.

When she dances, her teachers say, there's no difference between her and any of the other students in her class.

Her tap teacher at the Patel Conservatory, Susan Downey, who has taught her for the past five years, said she was immediately struck by Thalia's musicality.

"Every song you put on, the beat and the rhythm, she connects with right away," she said.

Curra Alba, her flamenco teacher, said she sometimes forgets Thalia has special needs because of the speed with which she picks up on dance.

Downey never changed the pace of her classes for Thalia.

"Where you saw some of her special needs were in sentence structure and verbal communication, but you don't have to do that in dance," she said. "Dance is all sensory. She expresses back to me with her body and her feet."

Sometimes, Thalia puts her hands on her hips and gently chastises Downey if she misses a step, and Downey said her spunk and lovingness have led her to be one of the favorites among her classmates.

So the Arbelaezes began investing their time, energy and money into dance classes, signing Thalia up for private lessons and shuttling her across town, and sometimes to other countries, for performances and rehearsals, in hopes their daughter can inspire others.

• • •

When Thalia turned 15, she and her father performed the tango at her birthday party. A friend of her mother's, visiting from the Arbelaezes' native Colombia, said she wished Thalia could perform in South America.

Alicia's friend had a daughter with Down syndrome, and that family had an organization in Colombia that lacked resources but aimed to help children with the condition. Maybe if Thalia performed, she suggested to her mom, the organization could put on a fundraiser.

Alicia hesitantly agreed, and when the family reached Colombia, they were surprised.

The hall was full the day of the performance, Alicia said, with 1,500 tickets sold.

There, the Arbelaezes met representatives from the Global Down Syndrome Foundation. Thalia began receiving invitations from all over the world to perform and share her stories with children.

She has visited South America several times, including a three-month stay in Argentina, where she made many friends, including a boy who told her mother he was going to be Thalia's boyfriend.

"I was like, 'Uhhhhh … why?' " Thalia said.

But, she said, he was cute. Her real boyfriend, however, is a member of the popular singing group One Direction, she said.

• • •

Each time Thalia takes the stage, Arbey and Alicia said they are filled with pride and gratefulness.

"God proved us wrong," Arbey said. "We feel happy because she can be an inspiration for others."

"She's our life," Alicia added.

But sometimes, they worry about her future.

"We know she has a great talent in dance, but how are we going to let her, besides being an inspiration and being happy on the stage, have something for doing for her life?" Alicia said. "If she was like a normal child, maybe she would be in school or in (university) classes. She's not concentrated in academic classes, but she's concentrated in dance classes."

But Arbey said their worries are small.

"I wouldn't change her for anything," he said. "The worries we have are about her happiness. We don't worry about if she goes out to nightclubs or about girlfriends or boyfriends. She's an angel."

Thalia said she wants to be a dance teacher, and to her parents' surprise, a movie star.

Dancing, she said, is when she feels best.

"My music is coming from here," she said, tapping her heart. "When I dance, the whole wide world is here."