SAN JOSE Offstage, Maya Naleid can be a bit of a wallflower, staring at her feet, lingering in the corner of the room. But once she"s in the spotlight, she's a star.
Like many young adults coping with autism, she has spent many years trying to avoid attention, hiding from prying eyes. No longer. Once the music starts pumping in the "Showboaters" class at the College of Adaptive Arts, she twirls like a ballerina.
"It makes me feel good, it makes me feel proud," says the soft-spoken 22-year-old from Campbell, who begs off an interview to dash back to rehearsal when she hears the pounding notes of "We Will Rock You," her favorite song. "I love to dance. I have to go do it now."
One of 23 students finding their groove during a recent class, Naleid is thriving at this arts conservatory for adults with disabilities. A nonprofit organization, the College of Adaptive Arts began in 2009 with a handful of students. Now almost 60 students take part in 15 classes, from puppetry to public speaking, at three San Jose locations.
While most services for disabled young people cease at age 22, the CAA champions lifelong learning. The mission is empowerment.
"Our model is perception and not perfection," CAA co-founder Pamela Lindsay says. "These students have spent too long on the sidelines. We want to teach them to get up there and rock what they've got. Their dance may not be Hollywood shiny, but it will be awesomely and uniquely their own."
Shaking their hips and flashing their jazz hands in front of the mirrors at San Jose's Silver Creek Sportsplex, the Showboaters aim for a mashup of "Glee" and "So You Think You Can Dance." The dancers may not land every step, but they do generate an intoxicating level of exuberance.
Rachael Henderson, 23, has limited mobility because of cerebral palsy. She moves with the help of a wheelchair and talks through the use of a computer. But she shakes a mean pompom.
"She looks forward to this class so much," says Angela Nazza, Rachel's caregiver. "She may not be ambulatory, but she sure can dance."
Melissa Correa, 31, says the boost she gets from showboating helps her cope with the rough patches in the rest of her life.
"It makes me feel brave," says Correa, who has Down syndrome. "This class makes my whole day good, and I don't let other people worry me anymore."
For her part, Naleid has always struggled to find her way in the world while dealing with epilepsy and autism. Because of her seizures, she has to be supervised at all times.
"It has been an enormous uphill challenge to find the right support for Maya," says her mother, Jasmina Naleid. "Over and over we had to fight for her right to be included and taught as everyone else."
Finding her footing at CAA has begun to turn Maya's life around. Instead of feeling shy, she is blossoming into a beautiful young woman with an unstoppable smile.
"The creative pursuits are a great medium to unlocking potential, but it's essential that it be coupled with high expectations, a steadfast belief in their abilities and the creation of a culture of safety," says DeAnna Pursai, co-founder of CAA. "The arts are so open-ended that they can explore their interests without the fear of getting it 'wrong.' "
Naleid's mother can't get over the change in her once-timid daughter, who now has the courage to stand in the front of the entire class and crack jokes.
"We always knew that there is more to Maya than her medical label, and to see her now onstage performing is amazing," she says, watching her daughter strut and preen onstage. "We cry but we are happy."
In the Showboaters class, students like Maya learn how to shine. They then share that uplifting feeling by performing for senior groups, community centers and schools.
Since all CAA classes are low-cost, money is tight. While instructors are paid, Pursai and Lindsay earn only a stipend. Because they focus on creativity instead of traditional adult day care, they also face hurdles when it comes to state funding.
That's why they are hoping to raise $7,000 with the help of Wish Book readers so they can purchase costumes, art supplies and technical equipment to help them take their shows on the road.
For the record, it's not just a job for Pursai and Lindsay. Pursai was inspired by her sister Angel, who has Down syndrome. Lindsay's daughter Valerie has Asperger's syndrome. Giving their students a chance to become part of the community is their life's work.
They are currently rehearsing the highlight of the Showboaters season, a 2 p.m. Dec. 14 show at Christmas in the Park in downtown San Jose.
"That's when the students are truly in their element," says Pursai, watching her dancers bust a move, "showing the world their artistic skills. They have so much joy to give."
To learn more about College of Adaptive Arts, go to www.collegeofadaptivearts.org.