Ceylan Gentilella works with her son Michael, 7, and Noah Ghee, 7, at her dance studio Desert Sun Performing Arts, where the Inspire class is dedicated to children with autism. Photo by Jake Johnson

By Katie Mayer

When Glennwilde Groves resident Ceylan Gentilella was in college, she moved from dance to recreation therapy. It was a choice that would impact the lives of those around her as much as her own.

The New Jersey native attended Montclair State University and earned two degrees – one in dance and one in therapeutic recreation. With her newfound passion for helping those with special needs, she started a wheelchair dance program and in 2003 was approached to start a dance program for youth with severe and nonverbal forms of autism.

“It worked really well,” Gentilella says. “There is so much we take for granted in working with youth who do not have autism.”

Today, Gentilella continues to make a difference in the lives of children through her dance studio Desert Sun Performing Arts (DSPA). The studio is the only brick-and-mortar dance school in Maricopa and is celebrating its 10th season in business.

Providing both recreational and intensive dance to youth age 2-18, the studio also offers a program called “Inspire” for children with autism. Gentilella also founded the studio’s nonprofit DSPA Gems, which helps those without the financial means to access dance classes. To date, the program has awarded $20,000 to youth in Maricopa.

“Everyone and anyone who wants to dance can,” Gentilella says. “Boys and girls, as well as those who may not be able to pay for it.”

Photo by Jake Johnson
Photo by Jake Johnson

And this includes children with autism – many of whom require additional considerations when learning to dance.

“Will their shirt fit properly? Can you touch the child to fix their movement? What is their comfort level with the music and bass acoustics? Will they have a meltdown?” Gentilella says.

There are accommodations that must be made to ensure a positive experience for youth with autism, but they are also accommodations Gentilella has come to know well. Seven years ago, she gave birth to her son Matthew, who was diagnosed with autism at age 3.

“I think all of my training was God preparing me,” Gentilella says.

As a small-business owner in Maricopa in a traditionally tough industry to survive, Gentilella has worked hard for years to keep the doors to her business open and her studio thriving.

“It’s a big learning curve,” Gentilella says. “You stumble; you fall and you keep going.”

And although her business success has not come easy, her greatest challenge has been raising her son.

“It’s been the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, to be a mother of an autistic son,” Gentilella says.

She has fiercely advocated for Matthew both inside and outside of the classroom and fought for the critical resources he needs. Her experience prompted her to start Parent Support Maricopa, which brings parents of children with autism and special needs together for advocacy and resource-sharing.

“We had a lot of obstacles to overcome with my son and his school just understanding his autism,” Gentilella says. “We are here to help and do what we need to do … it comes from a place of wanting positive change.”

Photo by Jake Johnson
Photo by Jake Johnson

Sarah Doyle, dance instructor for DSPA, says she admires Gentilella’s perseverance as both a businesswoman and a mom to a youth with special needs.

“She is very smart and super organized,” Doyle says.

Doyle’s children, ages 6, 9 and 12, also dance at the studio and love it. Two of her children are boys and take hip-hop classes.

“It’s been so fun to see them grow and appreciate music and dance,” Doyle says.

Even those families who haven’t traditionally been involved with dance have found Gentilella’s dance studio to be a positive place for youth to dance and grow.

One of those is Maricopa resident Karra Hathaway, whose 11-year-old daughter Chandler has danced at DSPA all 10 seasons. Chandler has danced competitively and takes every class offered, including hip-hop, jazz, ballet, tap and even clogging.

“I never anticipated my daughter being a dancer, and this is a new world for me,” Hathaway says. “Ceylan has really taken Chandler under her wing and always seems to care greatly for the girls and boys who dance.”

Hathaway jokes that she will never be a “dance mom,” but said she appreciates the discipline that dancing has taught her daughter.

“It teaches her hard work and that things don’t always come easy,” Hathaway says. “She has to work for it and it has taken her years to really show the improvement that she is wanting to show.”

For Gentilella, that is just one of the reasons she’s kept her doors open through the tough years and continues to do so today.

“It’s the most gratifying thing seeing my students grow,” Gentilella says. “The measure of success for a business is the company you keep, and I feel strongly that all of our families are wonderful people and I’m really grateful just to be a dance teacher.”

She also follows her dream in honor of her mother, who was a big supporter of Gentilella’s dance career, but passed away before she could see her daughter’s success. In fact, it was her mother who was going to play piano for Gentilella’s ballet productions.

“She always told me to follow my dreams,” Gentilella says. “She was my greatest advocate.”

And today Gentilella has become that advocate for others.

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This story appeared in the Winter Edition of InMaricopa The Magazine.