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    Exceptional kids practice for their prom

    At Dover Exceptional Center, the dancing exercises take a serious turn as students prepare for the big night.

    [Times photo: Toni L. Sandys]
    Nicole Becker, left, smiles as she joins fellow Dover Exceptional Center prom court members April Etheridge and Kevin Moore in practicing for their introductions. "She knows it will be a special day for her," said Loretta Biddle, a school tutor.

    By MELANIE AVE, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 27, 2002

    BRANDON -- Amid flowers and balloons at the Brandon Elks Lodge, a prom unlike most will happen tonight.

    Over the Rainbow it's called. For some parents of the teenagers, it'll feel like the song.

    Their sons and daughters from Dover Exceptional Center in southeastern Hillsborough County will be decked out in frilly dresses and uncomfortable tuxedos like their nondisabled peers this prom season. They'll wear perfume and corsages. They'll dance until their feet hurt.

    For three hours, the teenagers will click their heels together, and the daily struggles of wheelchairs, walking canes, sign language and mental deficiencies will fade.

    Tonight, it's all about the macarena, electric slide and hokeypokey. And the prom queen and king, of course.

    * * *

    "I'd love to be king," yelled Anthony Johnson, a chubby-cheeked 15-year-old, as he towered above his petite escort, Debbie Velez.

    Last week, Anthony lined up with the rest of the 14-member prom court in a room at the Dover school. For an hour, three days in a row, the students rehearsed for the prom.

    The court, chosen by each classroom, linked arms, and two by two, they learned how to slow dance after their names were called. Step and slide. Step and slide.

    "Dance like you like each other," Peggy Ferro, Dover's acting assistant principal, reminded them.

    As This Magic Moment played over the speakers, Anthony and Debbie prepared to lead the procession of king and queen candidates. But Anthony discovered royalty can be an unglamorous job.

    "Ow!" he screamed as Debbie clutched his elbow and concentrated instead on a toothy grin for a photographer. "You're hurting my arm."

    * * *

    Students considered too impaired for regular schools attend Dover. Here they are taught how to button their shirts, count money and work in the community.

    Every Friday they dance for fun and exercise. Every spring, they go to the prom.

    Krystal Mofield of Plant City could hardly believe it last year when her son Michael Williams received a prom invitation. So she went all out.

    He got a tuxedo with a green and black vest to match. Found a date. Even ordered a limousine that took both families to the dance.

    "It's a very big deal for them," Mofield said. "It's so much more exciting for them than your typical teenagers."

    This year, Michael, 17, will meet his date, queen candidate Ashley Schneider, at the prom.

    But during prom practice last week, he didn't appreciate her dancing with an escort instead of him. As the 16-year-old girl with a shy smile swayed back and forth with another boy, Michael grimaced and drew closer.

    * * *

    It didn't matter during the hokeypokey when the dancers put in their left foot instead of their right foot. Or if they stepped forward instead of back during the electric slide.

    King and queen candidates Kevin Moore, 15, and April Etheridge, 18, preferred their own dance anyway.

    As their classmates boogied and giggled to the macarena, they slow-danced.

    Across the room 17-year-old Adam Ledbetter could hardly be stopped as he heated up the dance floor in preparation for his first prom.

    "It's going to be a big party," said the boy with the messy brown hair and Hawaiian shirt.

    As Jailhouse Rock played, 17-year-old Adam Ledbetter walked up to teacher Curline Smith and asked, "Want to dance?"

    Smith, who took him up on the offer, mused about how the students will look tonight dressed up in their tuxes and gowns.

    "They look like a whole new group of kids," she said. "They'll be beautiful. Beautiful."

    -- Melanie Ave can be reached at (813) 226-3400 or

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