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Bright Ideas

At Arts in Motion Studio, Art is the Equalizer

Delight Lester, right, teaches Ruthie Roelse.

Ruthie Roelse

Maddy Lenhardt

Arts in Motion Studio in Grand Rapids provides the young and young at heart a space to create, learn, and perform, serving budding creatives of all abilitiies with individualized instruction.
Delight Lester, 53, sits comfortably spread out in the corner of the soft couch, her long pale blonde hair draped over her shoulders. She is surrounded by crayons and pastels, colored construction paper and paint brushes. One of her students at Arts in Motion Studio West Michigan, 147 Diamond Avenue SE in Grand Rapids, is sitting at the table in front of her working on a drawing, while another twirls and leaps on the nearby wooden floor in front of a wall of mirrors, her face intent with concentration. It’s a quieter moment in a studio that opens its doors to more than 100 students weekly, sometimes twice that.

Lester is founder and executive director of Arts in Motion, a nonprofit organization that specializes in adaptive instruction in the creative arts for the physically, emotionally or mentally challenged. The studio offers not only dance (ballet, tap, interpretative), but also classes in guitar, visual arts, drama. Music is offered in private as well as group lessons.

“This is Bradley,” Lester nods at the student sitting at the table working on a drawing. “He stopped talking about a year ago.” She hands the young man new colors, and he takes them, smiling at her.

“Yes, there’s lots of therapy in the arts,” Lester nods. “But that’s not what Arts in Motion is about. It’s important to have access to the arts. For everyone. There’s mainstreaming, with people integrating those with disabilities with those who aren’t disabled, and that’s good, but sometimes we need to be with others who are like us.”

Arts in Motion Studio does, in fact, have a music therapist on its staff, Audrey Stein, along with instructor Molly Boughner-Weatherbie, but Lester keeps the focus on being available to whoever comes in her door in as individualized of a manner as possible.

“That’s what makes us different. That’s what makes us unique,” she says. “I’ve taken in a child as young as 9 months. Our usual age range is from 2 years old up to age 65, and many of those who are older have grown up with me. My goal is to find people’s value and help them shine, and that has nothing to do with disability. We all need that.”

Lester has worked as an adaptive movement specialist and instructor for 30 years. She is a licensed social worker. Founding Arts in Motion Studio in 2005 was an obvious choice when considering Lester’s journey that brought her here. Daughter of a Presbyterian minister in East Grand Rapids, she grew up on the values of helping those around her, whether refugees or homeless or disabled or simply lost.

“As a kid, I was always fascinated with those who were different than me,” she says. “In the 60s, people with disabilities were often institutionalized.” That made little sense to Lester. Living in a family that was music-oriented, Lester, who played piano and guitar and took voice lessons, found that music could breach any barriers one might face.
When her mother died of cancer, 12-year-old Lester found healing in music. When her father remarried and moved the family to Birmingham, near Detroit, she immersed herself in the arts. When her own marriage ended in divorce, she returned to Grand Rapids, a single mother, looking for home, for work, for answers in the arts.

“I lived by creative camping,” she laughs, alluding to a time when she was homeless and staying with one friend after another or living out of her car. A series of jobs would eventually pay the rent on an apartment, but it was a friend who had a child with Down syndrome asking about an arts program that sent Lester on a hunt for an arts program for the disabled.  She found none.

“Not one. Not one program for my friend’s child.”

So Lester founded Living Light Dance Company in 1989, a dance group for the disabled that is today a part of Arts in Motion Studio and performs at events and festivals locally and statewide.  

“Little miracles happen along the way,” Lester nods.

And for Lester, every child, every person who enters her studio is a miracle waiting to happen. Every time she was sure the studio wouldn’t survive, usually for budgetary reasons, some gift would find its way to her. “I ask for what I need, and the universe brings it to me,” she says.

Lester remarried, had five children, but lost a son to a drug overdose while he was a student at University of Michigan. Her eyes swim, remembering.

“You get to that point, ready to quit, at the end of your rope,” she sighs. “Then something happens, and you keep going again.”

As much as Lester reaches out to help those coming into Arts in Motion Studio, the help goes both ways. “People tell me I have patience. I’m no martyr. When I come home at the end of the day, I’m happy. Megan … her gift to me was to tell me she’s no longer afraid of how a wheelchair might limit her. Phil was living a very isolated life; now he walks here every week. We had a young man sit here, watching for a month and a half before he got up to dance with the others.”

The young seem to tug at Lester’s heart most. Music in Motion classes are geared toward children ages 17 and under, offering individualized goals in recreational music classes, taught by music therapist Audrey Stein. The Treble Clef class, ages 0 to 5, includes instrument play, singing, movement to develop communication skills and improve coordination. Creative Arts for Kids, ages 6 to 12, explores music, drama and dance. Teen Tones, ages 13 to 17, builds confidence and social skills with musical games, dance and movement, singing and instrument play.  
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