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Laughing Feet gives special-needs performers a chance to shine

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Suzanne Perez
/
KMUW
Because of COVID restrictions, the 60 members of the Laughing Feet troupe rehearse in groups.

About a dozen members of the Laughing Feet Performers are rehearsing inside a gymnasium at Woodland United Methodist Church in Wichita.

They’re doing the “Time Warp” from “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

Thirty-two-year-old Andrew Ewalt sings lead, smiling wide as he jumps to the left and then steps to the right. He’s joined by other teens and young adults with physical or developmental disabilities, including some in wheelchairs.

“We give performance opportunities to kids who normally wouldn’t have them,” said Jenny Mitchell, who founded Laughing Feet in 2010.

“I try to give them the most professional experience that I can and make them feel like the rock stars that they are.”

Laughing Feet grew out of a school-based mentoring program called Circle of Friends, which matches special education students with their regular-ed peers.

Mitchell’s brother, local actor Shaun-Michael Morse, wanted the special-needs participants to have a creative outlet after graduation, so Mitchell started Laughing Feet. Some of the performers now are in their 30s and 40s.

Laughing Feet’s 10th-anniversary show was postponed due to COVID-19, but the group will perform again this weekend in an outdoor amphitheater at Wichita State University.

Thanks to grants and donations, the performers pay nothing to participate.

Carol Towey’s son, Kastin, started performing when he was 15. Now he’s 25. She said he still checks the calendar every day, hoping he has a Laughing Feet rehearsal.

“It’s a time for them to shine and be like everybody else,” Towey said.

“You get to see within our own selves, how we're nervous sometimes about doing new things and being with new people. And you don't see that with these individuals because they are so accepted, and they are where they need to be, performing on stage.”

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Suzanne Perez
Danielle Keller is a member of the Laughing Feet Performers.

The atmosphere during rehearsal is chaotic but gleeful. Because of COVID precautions, the more than 60 performers practice in three groups. 

Longtime member Danielle Keller sits quietly in her wheelchair much of the time, but then erupts in high-pitched squeals that get everyone laughing.

Twenty-five-year-old Devin Self said he enjoys singing and learning choreography. But mostly he loves that Laughing Feet feels like family.

“The main thing when we're here, when we're practicing, we come as a family,” Self said. “We come as a team. We do it as a team. And that's how I like it. That's how it's supposed to be.”

When you watch Laughing Feet perform -- at the Wichita River Festival or other local events -- it’s hard not to smile, clap and sing along. The enthusiasm and joy are infectious.

“It’s quite an overwhelming stage of happiness,” said Mitchell, the director. “People tear up right when everybody comes out . . . because it's so beautiful.”

She said people who see a Laughing Feet performance come back year after year.

“You'll leave feeling joy because it's impossible to not leave without feeling something when you watch these performers perform. They're just so beautiful,” Mitchell said. “It reminds you to love people for who they are, not what they are.”

Laughing Feet will present its 10th anniversary performance, “Laugh, Live, Love,” at 2 p.m. Saturday and 5 p.m. Sunday at the outdoor amphitheater behind WSU’s Duerksen Fine Arts Center. Bring your own chair or blanket. Admission is free, but a $5 donation is suggested.