Arms flailed and bodies jumped and shimmied as the dance music throbbed.
They smiled. They laughed. They moved as one mass.
No one was different.
The sixth annual Disability Supports/Ulster Project dance brings together McPherson residents with intellectual disabilities, American students, and Catholic and Protestant students from Northern Ireland.
The goal of the dance is squash stereotypes and break down walls between these groups of people.
Adam Stevenson, 16, from Portadown, Ireland, said he did not have much experience with people with intellectual disabilities before he joined the Ulster Project.
“At first, I was nervous, but after about five minutes, I felt comfortable,” he said.
He said the dance and other interactions the students have had with disabled residents has given him a greater understanding of people who have disabilities.
“It gives us the opportunity to challenge ourselves and learn leadership skills, so we can work with anyone,” he said.
Stevenson, who is Protestant, was standing next to and enjoying a punch with Niall Maguire, who is Catholic. In Ireland, they come from two different worlds.
In America, the two are sharing a room as a part of the Ulster Project, which brings students from both religions to McPherson annually during July.
The students come to the U.S. during this time every year because marches, which can turn violent, occur during this time of year in Northern Ireland.
Both boys are 16. Here in the U.S., they would be classmates, but in religiously segregated Northern Ireland, the boys said they likely would have never met or associated with each other.
“Now we are sleeping a meter from each other,” Maguire said.
Stevenson said the Ulster Project has given him hope the two religions might some day be able to come together.
“This feels good,” he said. “When we met, we realized that we are exactly the same. We were taught that Catholics are different, but we like the same things. We have the same lives.”
The American students in the Ulster project are learning things about themselves as well.
Kerrick vanAsselt, 16, of McPherson said he was having fun meeting people and learning about the culture of Ireland.
Jenny Steiner, 19, of McPherson is spending her summer off from K-State working for Disability Supports, but when she was in high school, she participated in the Ulster Project.
She said it was this annual dance that first sparked her interest in working with people with disabilities.
She is considering a career in special education.
“For me it was a really great experience. I got to see a whole different population that I had never interacted with,” she said. “It really opened my eyes, and I learned people with disabilities are fun.”
Page 2 of 2 - As the night wore on, it was evident that any differences between these many individuals had melted away.
Jon Zehnder, Disability Supports director of operations, said it’s all about having fun.
“It is beneficial for the Ulster students and for our clients,” he said. “What it amounts to is a whole group of people having a really good time.”