MONROE, Conn. (LA Times) — Little girls hopped out of SUVs and skipped up the steps to the Connecticut Dance! studio. They slipped on black leotards, petal-pink tights and slippers, and padded off with giggling friends to ballet, jazz and tap classes.
Some of the tiny dancers wore green ribbons, the favorite color of slain first-grade teacher Victoria Soto, or had scrawled the names of dead students on their wrists. Some arrived from funerals, having lost close friends, karate club and soccer teammates, fellow Daisy and Tiger Scouts.
Twenty children have gone missing not just from Sandy Hook Elementary School, but from the intricate network of childhood activities that connect suburban Newtown. In the weeks ahead, as anguished families resume their schedules and social lives, they will be repeatedly reminded of those missing faces, their sorrow testing the daily routines that bind them.
None of the dancers’ classmates was killed at Sandy Hook on Dec. 14. But the owner, Andrea Stratford — Miss Andrea to the children — has a 5-year-old son, Luke, who saw his teacher’s aide after she was shot in the foot. Stratford’s husband, Dennis, who works for the Newtown Board of Education, rushed to the school to make sure Luke had escaped the carnage, and then stayed to help the first responders.
At first, Stratford wasn’t sure when to reopen her school. She has taught dance for 23 years, long enough to line the walls with annual recital photos. She consulted her 10 instructors.
“They were clearly distraught and couldn’t really put on a front and do dance class,” Stratford said.
She went to see a grief counselor at the middle school in Newtown, who advised that routine gives children a sense of safety.
So she reopened Dec. 17, three days after the rampage. Attendance dipped the first few days, and then picked up. She was relieved.
“I don’t want them to be afraid,” Stratford said. “Life needs to be normal because that’s all they have.”
Elyse Scholl, 34, brought her 6-year-old daughter, Marisa, to ballet and tap class a couple days later. The family moved to Newtown from Michigan just six months ago, but they already feel connected to the community.
Marisa, who goes to Middle Gate Elementary School, is a Daisy Girl Scout, and other girls in her troop are fine. But her mother knows that eight Daisy Scouts from the Sandy Hook troop are among the 12 girls who were killed, including Charlotte Bacon, daughter of their troop leader.
Two of the girls played on Marisa’s youth soccer team. The father of one, Caroline Previdi, coached the team.
Scholl has not told Marisa about her dead teammates. Fall soccer season has ended, and Marisa won’t see the team again until spring. This month, Scholl took her to Newtown Youth Academy, which stayed open after the shooting to provide arts, crafts and sports activities for children.
“She jumped right into a soccer game,” said Scholl, who found solace with adult friends.
Another youth soccer coach, James Belden, said the town of 28,000 was so tightly knit that almost every family felt the impact.
“There’s only 2 degrees of separation in Newtown,” said Belden, whose 5-year-old niece was at Sandy Hook during the shooting. “If you don’t know someone, someone you know does.”
That’s why he and some others formed Newtown United as a grass-roots group to help reduce gun violence. Many members are parents who know each other from the soccer field and grocery store, he said, and being together gave them purpose. They’ve set up a Twitter account and a Facebook page, organized a committee “for sensible gun legislation” and are considering a course of action.
“We have a shared grief,” Belden said. “First, there was a shock and awe and a feeling of isolation. It’s good to come together.”
Some parents said their children were too scared to go out in the days after the shooting, even to karate class.
Barbara Moscova, 41, of nearby Trumbull, let her 12-year-old daughter, Maia, decide whether she was ready to dance again. During the drive to Stratford’s studio, Maia asked probing questions about the shooting.
“She’s going to tell me more today, because some of her friends she’s dancing with are from Newtown,” said her mother, who waited uneasily outside in her minivan. “I’m sure she’s going to have stories.”
But few children inside the studio talked of the shootings. One young girl mentioned that she was wearing green “for the bad thing that happened in Newtown.” Lindsey Gallagher, 11, had written the name of Chase Kowalski, one of the two slain Tiger Cubs, in black marker on her wrist, next to a heart. But she remained bubbly, laughing with friends.
An hour earlier, Lindsey had been sobbing at Chase’s wake, according to her father, Ray Gallagher. The day before, he said, she broke down at her middle school in Newtown. The father, his eyes teary and his voice hoarse, wore a green cable-knit sweater with a green ribbon pinned on it.
“We’re trying to keep it status quo,” said Gallagher, 51, who runs a landscaping business. “I don’t totally believe in getting them back into their routine right away. You let them experience what they want to.”
As he waited, he talked to Stratford about security at the studio and around town. He was reassured by the fact that he was forced to pass through four police checkpoints when he picked Lindsey up from school. Now no one can be too alert, he said.
“I’ve never had to double-check the security for any of the organizations our kids went to,” Gallagher said as strains of “Sunrise, Sunset” drifted out of a classroom where girls in pink tights were waltzing in pairs. “This is our world now.”
In the past, Lindsey would take a break between dance classes to run barefoot to Chaves Bakery & Deli, a few doors down in the same covered strip mall, to grab a snack with a classmate.
When she asked to go between classes this day, her father stalled, and finally agreed only if he could accompany her.
“But I always do that,” she protested.
“Well,” he said, “The rules have changed.”