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Local Author Pays Tribute to Special Needs Dancer in Ballerina on Wheels

Dr. Cindy Zurchin
Dr. Cindy Zurchin

“Everybody can dance,” is Dr. Cindy Zurchin’s motto, and her new children’s book helps further that belief.

Zurchin is the founder and owner of Cynthia’s School of Dance & Music, located in Ross Township. Her book, Ballerina on Wheels: Amazing Ava’s First Dance Recital, about student Ava Allenberg, was published in April.

According to Ava’s mother, Lauren Price, Ava has cerebral palsy and dystonia, which affects movement and muscle tone. “When she was born in January of 2009, she suffered a traumatic brain injury at birth during delivery,” said Price. Ava’s dance journey started when her younger sister, Paisley, began taking lessons at Zurchin’s studio.

“When we brought Paisley to lessons, Ava would tag along. Ava always smiled and enjoyed watching the young dancers,” Price explained. One of the teachers, Sam Skobel, noted Ava’s joy in watching the other children.

“I was asked if Ava would like to try dancing and the rest is history,” said Price. Ava began dance lessons three years ago.

Both Skobel and Zurchin have extensive backgrounds in special education. Skobel teaches special education and Zurchin has a doctorate in education and worked in special education and school administration for over 30 years. This background and experience is one reason Zurchin was inspired to author a book about Ava’s journey.

“When we were getting ready for Ava’s first recital, all of the little kids said, ‘How’s Ava going to dance? She’s in a wheelchair.’ I thought, ‘We need to share this,’” said Zurchin.

Ballerina on Wheels is the route Zurchin took to share Ava’s story. “We want people to see that everybody can dance, sometimes it just looks different,” Zurchin said.

The book tells the story of Ava, a nonverbal young lady who uses a wheelchair for mobility. With the help of her dance teacher, Miss Sam—modeled after Skobel—Ava performs in her first dance recital. Local artist Lana Lee illustrated the book. While the target audience is 2 to 10 years old, readers of all ages have enjoyed the book and its message, Zurchin said.

Zurchin adopted the nickname, ‘Amazing Ava,’ for Ava after a dance session. “I was teaching Ava one day, and she was working so hard to lift her leg to do a battement (a kick). She did it. I have never witnessed anyone work so hard in class,” Zurchin said.

“I, along with others, started calling her, ‘Amazing Ava,’” she added. “She is amazing.”

Like many young girls, Ava loves dancing. “It has brought her so much joy dressing up in leotards and tights like all of the other girls. She loves having the same opportunities as other girls her age, too,” said Price.

It was Zurchin’s hope in writing the book that other children would understand and be accepting and inclusive of differences, as well as to promote resilience and confidence. Those efforts were assisted when Pittsburgh City Council proclaimed May 10th as “Amazing Ava Day.” The family and Zurchin were honored in the city chambers that day.

Ava’s journey and the publication of the book has been wonderful not only for her, but for her whole family.

“I believe Ava survived a traumatic birth situation to make an impact, and this I feel is her part in doing so,” said Price. “She’s always so happy and joyful, and this has been an amazing teaching opportunity. I’m grateful to Cindy for giving Ava a chance and believing in her.”

Ava and Zurchin will be doing a reading and dance demonstration at Riverstone Books, McCandless Crossing, on Saturday, July 9 at 9:30 a.m. Ballerina on Wheels is available at Riverstone Books and on Amazon.

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