Dance company allows student to reach goals

Lidia Vazquez/The News

Kristin Knabel has been dancing her whole life. There is one thing that makes her stand out from any other dancer: she’s in a wheelchair. Due to the birth defect spina bifida, Knabel is paralyzed from the waist down.

Karen Balzer, the artistic director of the Jackson Purchase Dance Company, allowed Knabel to continue dancing and expand use of the abilities she has.

“Only once have I worked with a young man that was in a wheelchair and then it really clicked with me,” Balzer said. “We provide a lot of opportunities for students K-12, but once they graduate high school, there is nothing at the University level for young adults.”

The weekend Knabel was visiting Murray State, the Jackson Purchase Dance Company was having their seasonal performance. Balzer invited Knabel and her mother to come to the performance and meet her. Knabel immediately enrolled in one of Balzer’s dance classes.

Balzer works with students in nine schools throughout the region. Balzer encouraged Knabel not only to enroll in her classes, but also to become a member with the dance company.

Since first enrolling in Balzer’s dance classes, Knabel’s dancing has improved.

“When Kristen first came to me, she used to slouch down in her chair,” Balzer said. “When she first started dancing, she was dancing down in her hips and if you want to strengthen your abs you’ve got to lift up and that’s what I started making her do.”

Balzer said Knabel’s levels of stretch and movement have improved as well as her learning abilities.

“When she first started with me it took her a while to figure out the order of movement,” Balzer said. “Now because she rehearses with me a lot and I throw something new at her, she is getting to where she can pick things up a lot quicker.”

For the Jackson Purchase Dance Company’s spring concert, Knabel will be performing a solo.

Knabel incorporates sign language in her solo for the seasonal concert.

The two took the lyrics of John Lennon’s song, “Imagine” and highlighted the key words of the song. They then incorporated those keywords into sign language for Knabel to incorporate into her routine.

“We kind of both had to learn sign language,” Balzer said. “I have used sign language before in pieces that I have done but we took the lyrics of the song and the song has a lot of positive imagery so it really helped us in picking out words and phrases.”

Balzer said choosing to dance to “Imagine” influenced the idea of adding sign language.

Knabel practices twice a week for the concert.

Knabel said working with Balzer each Wednesday on her solo is helping her reach her potential goals.

“I want to eventually open my own dance company for people with disabilities of any age,” Knabel said. “And so asking Karen for assistance learning how to choreograph has really helped me learn more and figure out exactly how I’m going to be able to do it in the future.”

The Jackson Purchase Dance Company will have its seasonal performance at 7 p.m. Friday in Lovett Auditorium.

The performance will feature styles of dance ranging from Shaker dances to ballet to ‘50s dances, Balzer said.

Cost of admission for the concert is $8 for adults, $6 for students under age 16 and children under 3 get in free. A reception will follow the performance.

Email Anna Taylor at to suggest students to feature in the Student Spotlight.