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Spreading Ari's Light: Dance Therapy Initiative In St. Louis Honors Arianna Dougan

Arianna Dougan became a local celebrity and has inspired dance therapy initiatives. | Used: 2/21/19
Provided by Lori Zucker
Arianna Dougan became a local celebrity and has inspired dance therapy initiatives.

Arianna Dougan, an 11 year old who captured the attention of thousands, loved to dance.

“By the time she was two, she was begging for dance lessons,” Dougan’s mother, Lori Zucker, told host Don Marsh on St. Louis on the Air Thursday. “I wanted her to wait until she was old enough to appreciate them, so I told her she would have to be three to start lessons. I didn't know the lessons would have to start in the hospital.”

Dougan was diagnosed with a form of pediatric cancer in 2009 and died from the disease in 2017, but her legacy lives on. Spread Ari’s Light, a new foundation, is promoting dance therapy – also known as movement therapy – at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital in St. Louis.

Zucker, who is the founder and executive director of Spread Ari’s Light, was joined on the program by Katie Bohn, a licensed counselor and dance therapist at Cardinal Glennon, and Emily Edwards, assistant director of the St. Louis Academy of Dance.

Edwards began teaching dance to Dougan in 2009, when she heard about her story from a neighbor. Because Dougan’s immune system was compromised the dance instruction took a novel approach.

“We took dance and movement to her [in the hospital], not really knowing what dance therapy was. And we got to see what a huge impact this had on her recovery,” Edwards said. “Lori would text us every week ‘Ari woke up today and she wants to know if it's Wednesday. Does she get to dance today?' And so we learned how powerful it was.”

Emily Edwards, Lori Zucker and Katie Bohn joined St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh.
Credit Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio
Emily Edwards, Lori Zucker and Katie Bohn joined St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh.

Bohn, who provides dance therapy at Cardinal Glennon, said that the power of it comes from its ability to help the children express difficult emotions.

“The child in this instance has an opportunity to kind of express their own innate dance and self-expression, whatever they might be feeling,” Bohn said. “Part of that is allowing people the opportunity to maybe express what they would express in a counseling session through their words through movement. It's about the process of experiencing and feeling, but communicating that through movement or through dance.”

Zucker said that she saw firsthand how much dance helped her daughter’s physical and emotional wellbeing.

“If she was feeling lousy when she was waiting in bed, Katie would have her up and moving and walking and doing, without her even being consciously aware of the fact that she just went from hurting to completely not even knowing that the hurt was there anymore,” Zucker said.

Now, Zucker and Edwards hope to use Spread Ari’s Light to expand movement therapy programs around St. Louis and help other families struggling with childhood illnesses. The foundation is hosting a fundraising challah bake in honor of what would have been Dougan’s bat mitzvah, and in early March it will hold the annual Spread Ari’s Light Gala.

“We continue to get cards and letters and notes about how [Ari] inspired other people,” Zucker said. “So her effect will hopefully continue to grow through dance therapy, through the foundation.”

Listen to the full interview:

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Alex HeuerEvie HemphillLara Hamdan and Jon Lewis give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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Jon Lewis was the production intern at St. Louis Public Radio from January to May 2019. Originally from Pelham, New York, Jon came to St. Louis to attend Washington University in 2015. Previously, Jon has interned for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Eight by Eight, a soccer magazine based in Brooklyn.