How the Texas Ballet Theater inspires young dancers with Down’s syndrome

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Soft light streams through the large lobby windows of the Texas Ballet Theater School in Fort Worth, illuminating the room with a friendly glow. The school is calm and hushed with impatience on a Sunday afternoon in February. A new group of students will be arriving any minute.

Instructor Mariana Blessing and Educational Program Director Catherine Roe open the doors with bright smiles and enthusiastic greetings as four young dancers with Down’s syndrome arrive with their families. In an instant, the school is filled with excitement. The girls show off their ballet pink leotards, bows and sparkly shoes while parents and families have a warm chat. Blessing and Roe drag the group into a long room with photos of dancers and TBT productions on either side, saying goodbye to parents and siblings as they reach the studio door.

The girls are part of the inaugural class of the new adapted dance program at the Texas Ballet Theater, designed to meet the specific educational needs of students with Down syndrome in a safe environment. TBT offered a series of limited classes for children ages 5-7 in February and hopes to expand the offer to include ongoing programs available for more children with different disabilities. The program is partnering with Cook Children’s Rehabilitation Services Department to consult on therapeutic efforts.

“True to their title, adaptive classes constantly adapt to the group of students in the room,” says Roe. “A traditional dance class may have a schedule or set of standards or expectations that all students follow, but adaptive dance classes are tailored to the specific group of students in the room. “

Colleen Howk grew up dancing and always wanted to enroll her 6 year old daughter, Yua, in class, but wondered if the instructors would be able to effectively teach a child with Down’s syndrome. She wondered if a program separate from the normally able-bodied children was the right choice for Yua.

“Inclusion is a big deal, and it feels like we have to fight for inclusion,” Howk says.

The apprehension of the mother of five was allayed after seeing the TBT instructors interact with the children and how much her daughter loved the class.

“They were so careful,” Howk says. “They were so careful and attentive to each other’s needs.”

Howk adopted Yua while living in Japan with her family during her husband’s military service. They were moved by adoption stories and made the decision to adopt a child that others may not want. Howk knew it was a sign when her husband heard about an adoption at a prayer brunch with their church in Japan. They connected to a church service and adopted a young boy with Down’s syndrome. They later adopted Yua as well.

“People don’t like people with special needs,” Howk says. “You are not assured of your health and your abilities in life, whether or not you are diagnosed before birth or at birth. ”

The class begins with warm-up exercises and stretches in a way that promotes strength, coordination and cognition but it looks like a game. Teachers and students sing catchy songs that teach young dancers to open and close their hands or touch their chin, nose and toes. Blessing, Roe and Cook Children’s volunteer physiotherapists, occupational therapists and speech-language pathologists lead by example, singing and hopping around the room like rabbits to the beat of the music.

The song’s verbal cues give children fun instructions to pretend to be an elephant or giraffe, raising their arms in a way that engages or stretches specific muscles. Jumping or tiptoeing helps with balance and stability. Learning sequences can promote memory function, and a classroom atmosphere teaches social skills and relationship building, all with the enthusiastic support and silliness of instructors. Ayah Sayyed says class is a time for her 5-year-old daughter, Sabeel, to embrace independence and focus on herself, away from the rest of the family.

“It’s time for her to shine, and she uses it however she can,” Sayyed says.

Yua also seems to know that this class is all about her. The young dancer has large brown eyes and black hair. She is outgoing and confident, knows what she likes and isn’t afraid to use her voice or be the center of attention. The curiosity and independence of their fellow students and classmates led them to explore and practice freestyle on their own, being gently redirected from time to time by Roe, Blessing and the volunteers.

The class is cohesive to strengthen the structure – no surprises. There is always a short story hour and coloring session where students listen to Blessing read a dance story book, then everyone colors a ballerina coloring page. Yua asks for the purple pencil each time.

Clinical therapeutic benefits and measurable outcomes do not demonstrate the full value of adaptive programming. Dancers learn about self-expression, healthy emotional outings, connection, creativity and the joy of ballet.

“I know the impact that dance has in my own life; I see it in my students, ”says Blessing. “I want this opportunity to be available to everyone. “

The program developed in response to the needs of the community, Roe said. With two years of preparation and the support of the program’s founding sponsor, the HL & Elizabeth M. Brown Foundation, the Texas Ballet Theater is able to provide a safe educational space for children who may not have had access before. . Roe and Blessing attended a workshop with industry leader Boston Ballet to learn adapted dance methods and even took a fictional class. Blessing says she wanted to be “ready and equipped”.

“Students and parents are the experts in their strengths and weaknesses,” says Blessing. “We’re just here to lead a dance class. “

The blessing is the key to linking Cook Children’s and TBT. She was an intern in the Cook Children’s Child Life department and, along with Roe, reached out to make the connection, according to PT / OT program manager Carolyn Mullins.

“We looked into it and it seemed like a wonderful opportunity for children in our community with special needs to practice the skills they are learning in real-world therapy with their peers and siblings,” says Mullins. “These opportunities are rare and often hard to find for families. ”

The current adapted dance program is specifically aimed at young children with Down syndrome. Blessing participated in the KinderFrogs program at TCU and has more experience working with children with Down’s syndrome than children with other disabilities. As the program grows and evolves, TBT hopes to add classes for dancers of all ages, as well as include programs for people with other disabilities.

“It’s about listening to the community and seeing what they want,” says Blessing. “I’m really hopeful for the future and what’s in store for this program.”

The course ends with “Let It Go” of Disney’s “Frozen” and time for the kids to freestyle. Instructors and little dancers explore creating their own movements – usually by spinning, jumping, and making faces in the mirror. This, more than any other part of the class, seems to have all the students on the same page.

Before the girls’ families are allowed in for pickup, all students should be seated quietly in a line against a wall. Roe opens the door and moms, dads and siblings flock to the room to find their dancers.

“Let It Go” does an encore performance, and all the students return to freestyle, this time tugging at the hands of parents and siblings as people take the opportunity to take pictures.

Some of Yua’s siblings join her on the dance floor after some cheerful encouragement from the rest of the family while Howk video on her phone. Sabeel turns around, arms outstretched and tongue sticking out.

The children wander the hallway to come home even more excited than when they arrived, amplified by Disney songs and endorphins. Slowly peace and quiet pervades the school as the door closes after the last of the families, leaving Roe, Blessing, and the volunteers to relax, if only for a moment.

Due to the COVID-19 epidemic, The Texas Ballet Theater had to cut its second series of adaptive dance short to four weeks. Roe says the immediate impact of the virus does not change TBT’s long-term plans to expand and offer permanent adaptive dance programming. She encourages prospective students and families to check the Texas Ballet Theater website and social media for updates on class schedules.

Programs like TBT’s Adaptive Dance highlight accessibility and inclusion issues for people with disabilities in North Texas. When does specialty programming become isolation? Mullins and Howk both say that there are benefits to inclusive and adaptive programming, and that each individual has different and specific needs.

“If there were four little girls with Down’s syndrome and four without, how much more effective would this class be? Said Howk. “They could model this behavior.”

“Inclusive programs can be a great benefit and a learning experience for all children and staff who participate in them,” says Mullins. “Adapted programs provide a safe learning environment for children with special needs that allows students to participate in events and activities with their peers.

Howk advocates practicing love and compassion, saying, “It takes more work, but it’s worth it. “

“Our world is moving so fast, and often people with different abilities just need things to slow down,” she says.

Many of Howk’s concerns about inclusion and kindness towards people with disabilities apply in a broader sense. She says people should be treated as individuals and not “arbitrarily assessed” by an invented standard of what is “normal”. She fears that good intentions will be lost in the “great machine” of society.

Months later, Yua is still talking about ballet. Howk is considering enrolling her in classes closer to home.

“Every time you talk about ballet she says, ‘I did that!’ and she shows her movements, ”Howk says.

The Texas Ballet Theater Adaptive Dance Program has the ability to help launch a new demographic of people who love dance. It continues its mission to focus on art, access and education. Howk would also add “love and compassion” to this list.

“You could see it on the teachers’ faces; they loved our daughters, ”Howk says. “It was beautiful. They were teaching our daughters their love of dancing.


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