Eight-year-old Khalif (he prefers to give only his first name) does not say much but his face speaks volumes. From the broad grin on his face and the unmistakable sparkle in his eyes, it is evident this special needs boy is really excited about something. And why wouldn't he be? Like any other child he likes a good party. And if there are clowns, tap-dancing, good food and music then what more could a child ask for.
Khalif's fellow students at the Senses Residential and Day Care for Special Needs in Umm Suqeim, Dubai, are just as thrilled about this party as he is. They laugh uncontrollably when the clowns do a jig on stage, sway in their wheelchairs as the music gains tempo and throw up their arms and shake them about wildly to the tunes of La Bamba.
The party gets merrier by the minute. The comedy and tap dance routine by a couple of clowns to kick off the show leaves the audience giggling and laughing uncontrollably. They cheer and applaud the comic acts while urging the clowns to do more. Next follows a rendition of a song and a professional break-dance show. This gets the loudest applause - with some students even taking to the stage during the act keen to emulate the performers.
Amidst all this fun two people feel a deep sense of satisfaction, glad their efforts are bringing so much joy. Meet Mina Liccione and Ali Al Sayed, the people behind Clowns Who Care, a volunteer initiative that organises such events to bring smiles to the faces of people with special needs and their families.
Clowns Who Care is a project created by Liccione and Al Sayed under Dubomedy Arts, a group of artists who aim to build and train a strong urban arts community in the UAE.
Italian-American Liccione is a veteran Broadway tap dancer, award-winning comedienne and arts educator who came to Dubai in 2007. She teamed up with Emirati Al Sayed, a stand-up comic and producer, to launch Dubomedy in 2008. Two years ago they felt the need to bring laughter into the lives of special needs children. After considering various options they came up with Clowns Who Care.
"I always look around and see how I can help someone or make them laugh. So, when I came to Dubai, I had a heartfelt urge to extend my comic abilities to bring a smile to the faces of these special children," says Liccione.
The fun party at Senses was one of the many such events staged by Clowns Who Care in the institute. In the past they have also performed for many organisations in the UAE, including Dubai Autism Centre, SFS (Special Families Support Group), Saathi (Society for Advocacy and Awareness towards Holistic Inclusion), Down's Syndrome Dubai, Dubai Cares, the annual WARC (Woman Auto Racing Club) drive and the Al Noor Centre.
The Clowns Who Care project incorporates three elements - performance, interaction and dance - in their programmes for special needs children. So, there are comedy acts, circus gigs, music and dance in these shows. During the performance the clowns offer personal attention to each member of the audience, and towards the end of the show invite them on stage to dance together - making each one not just an onlooker or spectator but a participant in the fun proceedings.
"We want to make sure that each person feels special," says Al Sayed.
These events are put together by Liccione and Al Sayed after a series of emails, phone calls and facebook updates coordinating volunteers, food and other supplies.
Many of the volunteers are Dubomedy students; some are professional performers who work with Liccione and Al Sayed on their events while others are purely volunteers. Clowns Who Care do not accept donations or seek funding. They are a self-supported group of volunteers trying to make a small difference in the lives of special needs children.
"We do it because we love it and the rewards of the children's happiness is greater than anything else," says Al Sayed, who considers each event a unique experience.
Liccione agrees, "Seeing their joy is the most cherished memory for me. The hugs and smiles I get at the end of the show are my rewards."
The Senses event turned out to be especially memorable for this duo as they were touched by the heightened enthusiasm of some of the students who could not stop themselves from dancing on the stage - even during the acts. Unforgettable among them were two youngsters, Razai and Khalib, who took to the stage during the break-dance performance to showcase their own dance moves.
"Seeing them [on their back] ‘cycling' in the air and performing an air guitar was truly memorable," says a smiling Liccione.
For this New York girl laughter is a way of life. Her tryst with comedy began at home with her father who was almost always "cracking jokes and entertaining."
"Laughter was part of my childhood years and even as a child I was always performing."
A person who has recognised the power of laughter, she says, "It has immense healing powers and acts as a defence mechanism to help us handle stress and frustrations in life. If you can laugh at something I believe you have won half of life's battles."
After a bachelor's degree in dance this performer and laughter-lover went on to do a master's degree in experimental performance studies at the New College of California. She is also a graduate of the San Francisco School of Circus Arts, Clown Conservatory.
Al Sayed, on the other hand, always had a flair for comedy but was stuck in a nine-to-five job in event management before teaming up with Liccione to form Dubomedy.
Even before co-founding Clowns Who Care Liccione had worked with several volunteer projects in the US. She was part of the San Francisco Clown Conservatory community programme, the Big Apple Circus clown care programme among many others.
Her own project was inspired by the Clown Doctors of the Big Apple Circus, who are professionally-trained clowns who visit hospitals and help patients in the healing process through laughter.
The popular adage that laughter is the best medicine is followed in many therapy and rehabilitation centres across the world. According to Dr Lina Owies, Executive Director at Senses, comedy events with music and dance are also part of therapy and have a significant impact on the minds of special needs people. "For one it provides entertainment. It also helps them to focus, improve fine and gross motor skills, develop social skills, blend into community life and gives them a change from their everyday routine." After such shows she finds her students happy and in high spirits.
Asma Al Falasi, mother of seven-year-old Hend and four-year-old Saeed, who attend Senses says, "My kids enjoy all kinds of music. After such events I find them to be in an especially good mood and more relaxed."
If some of these special needs children enjoy comedy and music then others, like Ornella, look forward to a good dance at the Clowns Who Care events. "I love dancing. Today is my birthday and this is the best way to celebrate it," says a delighted Ornella, who takes breaks from dancing to talk to me.
Liccione and Al Sayed have plans to expand the Clowns Who Care project all over the UAE. They plan to train more artists to perform clown acts for children with special needs and to get more people to volunteer and perform at many more institutions.
Among their upcoming events is a charity programme for the Arthritis Foundation on October 11 to create support and raise funds for medication for patients on World Arthritis Day. They participated in the Gala for Life event on May 5 to benefit the Palestine Children's Relief Fund, PCRF-UAE. They have also recently been part of an initiative called Mawaheb from Beautiful People, an art studio for young adults with special needs between the ages of 19 to 30 years. The clowns, as part of the Dubomedy Arts School, have set up an ongoing programme of comedy and dance for these artists.
Meanwhile, at Senses, Khalib and Razai have been persistently asking about the next show from Clowns Who Care. Liccione and Al Sayed, hope you are reading.
Making a difference
Who: Clowns Who Care
What: A group of volunteers that organises parties and social events for children with special needs
Why: To bring joy and laughter with their dance and comic performances
Professional Clown Doctors began working in hospitals in 1986 under a programme called the Big Apple Circus Clown Care Unit, which was started by Michael Christensen in New York City. Clown Doctor programmes now operate in Australia, Canada, Europe and the US.
By the way …
In hospitals and medical centres across the world, groups of highly-trained clowns, known as clown doctors, help bring laughter and joy into the lives of sick children. These clowns undergo intensive training to acquire a high level of performance skills that include magic, music, puppetry, storytelling and mime. Clown doctors need to be sensitive and empathetic - as well as funny. To qualify as clown doctors people need to undergo intensive training and pass an audition.
Their role is to help in the healing process through humour and positivity. They help children to adapt to hospital life and calm them during procedures. Research shows that laughter has many therapeutic benefits. It helps relieve fear, strengthens the immune system, relaxes muscles and aids recovery.
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Tessy Koshy is a Sharjah-based freelancer