Boston Ballet gives students with Down syndrome the chance to dance
By Mary Grimes
If you ask 10 dancers why they dance, you will likely get 10 very different answers. One might say it is the feeling of freedom, another the sense of pride that comes from improving, yet another the satisfaction of emotional expression. But a common thread is joy, a feeling that crosses all boundaries of age, ability, background, and training. It is this universal joy that is at the heart of Boston Ballet’s Adaptive Dance Program, designed for students with Down syndrome. With their bright smiles and constant giggles, anyone can see the love the students have for movement and for each other.
Founded in 2002, Adaptive Dance is the product of a partnership between Boston Ballet and Boston’s Children’s Hospital. Michelina Cassella, director of physical and occupational therapy at Boston Children’s Hospital and of physical therapy for Boston Ballet, and Gianni Di Marco, then a Boston Ballet dancer, created a program specifically geared toward Down syndrome students. Both Cassella and Di Marco sought to build a program that allowed students to not only learn movement, but also gave them the opportunity to interact with their peers.
In her years as the director of physical and occupational therapy at Boston Children’s Hospital and working closely with many children with Down syndrome, Cassella had noticed the lack of extracurricular opportunities available for this population. Children were given a wide variety of therapy treatments but rarely had the opportunity to participate in recreational activities, especially with other children. Cassella approached Di Marco at Boston Ballet in the late 1990s with the idea of creating a program that would allow these students to interact not only with each other but with company members and other students at the school. Building on their varying experience, Cassella as a physical therapist and Di Marco as a longtime dancer and dance educator, the two worked together to develop Adaptive Dance. What resulted was the pilot program in 2002 geared toward students ages 7 to 9.
Concept and structure
Both Boston Children’s Hospital and Boston Ballet were highly involved in the development of the pilot program. According to Victoria Westcott, former education and community relations manager at Boston Ballet, this level of collaboration was essential. “The partnership is unique to our program and has always been a key factor in the program’s success,” she says. “Children’s Hospital physical therapists are present in every class to ensure the health and safety of participants and offer guidance to faculty members on special modifications for the class population.”
The collaboration has expanded beyond the hospital’s physical therapy department. Speech therapists, occupational therapists, and family resource coordinators also provide support to the program, advising the faculty on everything from parent communication to student placement within the program.
Adaptive Dance was never intended to serve as a form of dance therapy, as anyone involved in the program is quick to tell you. Instead, Westcott says, its mission “is to enrich the lives of young people with special needs by teaching challenging movements to music while fostering friendships and a sense of personal accomplishment through a positive, creative, and fun-filled movement experience.”
Prior to entering the program, each student takes a placement class, allowing the dance faculty and therapists from the hospital to select the appropriate class level. The program is designed to give students at all levels the opportunity to learn many of the same skills developed in traditional dance classes: coordination, spatial awareness, self-discipline, confidence, team building, and rhythm.
Following the mandates of this mission, the program has been remarkably successful, growing in the past 10 years from one class per week for students ages 7 to 9 to four classes per week, which enroll more than 50 students ranging in age from 4 to 25.
In the classroom
In many ways, the class structure is similar to that of a traditional dance class, with a few key differences. Every Saturday morning, the students bound into the studio, ready to dance with their friends. They begin with a warm-up, most often done using a chair for stability. Students stretch and move their bodies—using their chairs as partners—as they prepare for the bigger dancing that is to come.
After their warm-up, the students begin to move around the space, sliding in a big circle around the chairs. Their smiles and giggles make it clear that this group chassé is a favorite part of the class.
Class then transitions into the “grande allegro” section, which includes more group work; dancers move across the floor in pairs, linking steps together to make short combinations. Students might come from opposite corners, skipping and circling around each other to wind up in the opposite corner, or travel as partners around the room together. The students then work together to build these partnerships into a short dance.
The final section of class is set aside for self-expression. The chairs are moved into a large circle. One at a time, students come into the center and move to the beat of the drum. Smiling and laughing, dancers move freely around the center of the circle, engulfed in the joy of their movement.
Every class closes with a group hug. The students and teacher thank each other for their hard work and creativity, then turn to thank the accompanist, the glow of pride and joy apparent on every face.
While this structure remains at the heart of every Adaptive Dance class, teachers feel free to alter the class to best suit the students and to fit their own teaching styles. Each faculty member is well trained in the Adaptive Dance curriculum and methodology, but has the freedom to incorporate his or her own expertise. As Westcott says, “Teachers use [the] elements in ways that are unique to their teaching styles, but always create a positive environment for students to learn and grow.” She adds, “Classes are structured to meet the social, emotional, and physical needs of students at varying developmental levels.”
David Alexander, education advisor for Boston Ballet’s outreach programs and a former professor of child development at Tufts University, elaborates: “Adaptive Dance includes opportunities to move expressively, in both spontaneous and planned ways, without necessarily imitating conventional dance styles.”
Every class is taught using a live accompanist, most often a percussionist. During the early stages of the pilot program, teachers found that students responded to the consistent tone and timbre of a percussive instrument better than to piano accompaniment, and that the use of simple rhythms helped students learn movement more easily.
Students are also required to follow a dress code: bike shorts and an Adaptive Dance T-shirt. (Originally, for female students, it was a leotard of any color and bike shorts.) Westcott found the change to be positive, allowing students to focus on their movement and expression rather than what they are wearing. “There is much less concern over fitting into a tight leo and less frustration for parents navigating a dance store or going online to get the right clothes,” she says.
Perhaps the most memorable event of the year for everyone involved in the program is the celebratory showcase at the end of the spring session. Students perform choreography—which they have learned throughout the semester—for family, friends, community members, and company members. The show—the crowning moment of the year for students and parents—brings all the Adaptive Dance Program classes to the stage to perform short works for an appreciative audience. Parents can see not only the dedication their children have to this program, but also the connections they have made with their peers and their teachers. The night often ends with high fives, hugs, and tears of joy.
Expanding the program
Adaptive Dance’s success inspired the founders to expand, and in 2010 a pilot program was developed for students with autism spectrum disorders. “So far, the autism module has introduced more than 10 children to music and movement, with an emphasis on the emotive and expressive qualities of both,” Westcott says.
While adapting the program developed for students with Down syndrome, one of the first things that had to be changed was the music used to accompany class. Unlike children with Down syndrome, children with autism are prone to sometimes-acute sensory sensitivity. Piano music was found to work much better than percussion for autism spectrum students.
Both modules are designed to accommodate the needs of the respective groups of students. Teachers who work with Down syndrome students are careful to avoid movements that can aggravate unstable joints, a common problem. When working with students who have autism, teachers and accompanists must adapt volume and tone to accommodate students’ sensory tolerance levels.
A model for others
Inspired by the success of Adaptive Dance, Colorado Ballet brought a similar program to the greater Denver community, implementing its Be Beautiful, Be Yourself program in 2010.
Basing the program on the Boston model, the faculty at Colorado Ballet created a program in partnership with the Anna and John J. Sie Center for Down Syndrome at Children’s Hospital. It too has had incredible success; starting with only a few students in the first year, the program now runs two full classes a week.
Like the Boston Ballet program, the mission of Be Beautiful, Be Yourself is to help students develop both motor skills and social and personal skills, with the ultimate goal of helping them acquire the confidence and physical skills to move into other classes within the school.
The creators of Adaptive Dance are putting together a professional development workshop designed for dance educators who would like to increase accessibility to their programs and broaden community outreach by offering a program like Adaptive Dance. The workshop will cover all elements of developing such a program, including startup, training faculty, best practices for building the program, and ongoing growth strategies, with an emphasis on the collaboration between the school and local hospitals or therapy centers.
While the official start date for these workshops is yet unknown, the goal of the workshop is to teach both theories and practices of the Adaptive Dance Program, and to offer a successful model on which similar programs can be developed. The training program will target community directors and administrators in order to provide the necessary resources to develop programs at other schools.
Eager to share in their successes, Adaptive Dance volunteers and faculty note the remarkable growth they’ve observed in each student; they have seen self-esteem flourish and personalities come out as the class has grown. Perhaps even more excited about the program, though, are parents of Adaptive Dance participants. Many of the students have been with the program for years and have developed a close bond with the group. And as the parents watch class with beaming smiles, it’s clear that this program has had a strong impact not only on the students, but the families and faculty of Boston Ballet as well.
To take part in the development workshop, contact Zakiya Thomas, director of education and community initiatives at Boston Ballet, at firstname.lastname@example.org.