February 2017 | Rhythm Works Wonders

Special-needs children respond well to key elements of hip-hop dance, including its strong, steady beat and the way many steps mimic familiar actions. One class has fun with “push the floor down” (right top) and “squish your foot” (right bottom); another (left) uses colorful shapes to explore the concept of rhythm.
Photos courtesy Tricia Gomez

Rhythm Works Wonders: Integrative dance program teaches hip-hop to students with physical and cognitive challenges

by Karen White

Tragedy often takes people down paths they might otherwise never have walked. A miscarriage followed by a near-fatal medical emergency five years ago was transformative for Torrance, California–based dance teacher Tricia Gomez, creator of Hip Hop in a Box. (For more information on Hip Hop in a Box, see “Thinking Inside the Box,” December 2011.)

“I realized I [survived] for a purpose, and I needed to refocus my life,” Gomez says. “I didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing, but I stayed open and ready.”

Gomez found that the character and movement of hip-hop dance translate well to special-needs education.

After that experience, Gomez says, she began to notice the word “autism” frequently popping up; this motivated her to embark on a yearlong quest to learn everything she could about students with cognitive and physical challenges.

Guided by occupational therapists, early childhood development specialists, and pediatric physical therapists, Gomez created a system for teaching hip-hop that could be understood by students with learning differences and special needs and that could help these students reach some of the physical, social, and cognitive goals set by their medical teams.

Tricia Gomez (left) spent a year educating herself about special-needs children before adapting her Hip Hop in a Box curriculum into Rhythm Works Integrative Dance.
Photo by Arthur Crenshaw

“I wanted it to be purposeful and specific to each child,” Gomez says of Rhythm Works Integrative Dance, the rhythm and dance program and accompanying teacher certification process she developed. “I wanted dance to be the bridge that helps [these children] gain certain skills.”

Rhythm Works is built on Hip Hop in a Box’s 100 flash cards that describe hip-hop steps through words and illustrations. Gomez found that the character and movement of hip-hop dance translate well to special-needs education—many steps mimic familiar, everyday activities and the music is current and has a strong, steady beat. Hip-hop also can provide a social point of entry for students with autism or other social challenges. Gomez points out that “if they go to a school dance, kids aren’t doing ballet. The DJ is playing hip-hop music.” Taking lessons in hip-hop, she says, gives the students “a comfort level, allows them to participate with their peers, and gives them something cool to talk about.”

Gomez teaches her weekly Rhythm Works class, with attendance ranging from 8 to 16 special-needs students, in rented studio space. She also leads multiple weekly half-hour sessions for about 200 children in public school special-needs classes.

Through a three-day in-person workshop or an online course, 140 dance educators in the U.S. and Canada have been certified to teach Rhythm Works classes. (A hybrid online and one-day in-person workshop will become available later in 2017.) The certification process addresses how Gomez has developed the system as well as methodology and important considerations in teaching special-needs students.

In the classroom

For Rhythm Works, Gomez has broken down the Hip Hop in a Box curriculum, placing each step into one or more of 31 different skill categories, such as single leg balance, trunk/back extension, or flexibility. She then considers the physical challenges of a particular group of students in order to create a lesson plan that addresses areas (such as balance or hand-eye coordination) where the students need the most assistance.

The Rhythm Works curriculum gives teachers strategies for addressing their students’ physical and cognitive challenges; for example, some overstimulated children find it calming to adopt a standing half-push-up position against a wall.
Photos courtesy Tricia Gomez

Working on goals. By talking to a student’s parent or physical therapist, or members of the public school team in charge of the student’s individualized education program, Gomez can determine which hip-hop steps will help that student to reach personal goals, such as riding a bike. In this way, the hip-hop lessons not only teach dance but help the students to improve their overall physical capabilities.

Using visual aids. Many children with autism or other special needs struggle to sequence instructions or steps, and this can lead to severe anxiety. Gomez tackles this challenge by taping the Hip Hop in a Box cards on the classroom mirror, in the order the steps are used in the choreography. Students can see that “rainbow” is first, followed by “high five,” and so on. “Obviously, the goal is to pull away any assistance so they become independent and their memorization skills improve,” Gomez says, “but visual aids are extremely effective in the learning process.”

Addressing behavior through movement. The term “proprioception” refers to the awareness of where the body is in space; the body’s vestibular senses (centered in the inner ear) provide proprioceptive awareness of position and movement. Children sometimes seek to stimulate their vestibular senses through activities such as spinning or jumping. Gomez says that dance teachers who understand these concepts can help students self-regulate disruptive or inappropriate behavior. For example, some children find the position of a standing half-push-up against a wall very calming.

“When a child gets [sensorially] overloaded, then we see maladaptive behavior,” Gomez says. “Once you have awareness of why they are acting like that, you know what you can do to get them back on track.” Proprioception-based movements often act like “a magic bullet,” she says.

Movements such as spinning or running around the room, for example, can be modified into appropriate hip-hop steps. “Moving up and down, turning upside-down, and [moving] all over in space—that’s in hip-hop’s nature,” she says.

“Experimenting with different ways to move their bodies is a new concept for our kids.” —Tricia Gomez

There is also room within the scope of hip-hop movement for self-stimulatory (or “stimming”) behaviors common to some children with autism, such as repetitive hand flapping. Placing a bit of that movement into choreography turns it into something cool that the entire class is now doing, and gives it a proper time and place.

Some students become fixated by the mirror, staring into it or constantly running up to it. Gomez includes a few moments of “practicing emotion” in the mirror as part of her hip-hop warm-up. In the same vein, Gomez allows students to enter the classroom 5 or 10 minutes early for what she calls “Me Time,” during which they can run, spin, or jump all they like. She ends “Me Time” with a 30-second countdown, which helps to ensure a smooth transition into the lesson.

Developing motor coordination. Many hip-hop movements are similar to real-life actions—throwing a ball, putting on pants, cracking a stick, brushing teeth. “The students already have a motor plan in their bodies for those activities,” Gomez says. “When you incorporate them into dance, it’s easy for the students to coordinate those familiar movements with the music.”

Experimenting with movement. Hip-hop encourages exploration of different movement qualities; for example, the robot is sharp, while waving is fluid. Gomez introduces this concept (which she calls “body dynamics”) during a game such as freeze dance by calling out different tasks: wiggle like a wet noodle, dance loud and then dance quiet, dance small like an ant. “Experimenting with different ways to move their bodies is a new concept for our kids,” she says.

Learning musicality. Recognizing the important relationship between music and dance, Gomez dedicates one segment of every class to a rhythm lesson. While some special-needs children have difficulty with auditory processing, others simply can’t feel the beat of a song or find the 1-count, she says. She uses hand drumming to assist students who are having difficulty—for some, she will clap the beat while the student mirrors her; for others, she will physically hold their hands and help them clap along.

Teachers who lack experience working with special-needs students can build confidence by starting with small classes of four to five children.
Photo courtesy Tricia Gomez

Teacher prep

Teaching special-needs students requires substantial preparation, patience, and thoughtfulness. Gomez offers the following advice to teachers who are thinking about entering this area of instruction.

Educate yourself. Gomez quit her full-time job and dedicated a year to learning about children with autism and other special needs. Once she had a greater understanding of these children’s particular challenges, and of strategies to address such challenges, she was able to better serve them as a dance teacher. She was also far more comfortable talking to parents and medical professionals (such as therapists) about how dance can fit into a child’s social and physical development—and parents and medical professionals, in turn, were more comfortable talking to her.

Gomez advises dance teachers who would like to work with special-needs children to educate themselves. “It’s all about being aware of what’s happening with your students and understanding how you can help,” she says. “Education allowed me to stop seeing the problems and start seeing the possibilities.”

Seek out workshops geared toward therapists or special-ed teachers. If there is a pediatric therapy clinic nearby, ask to collaborate or for advice. Books can also be a good source of information, Gomez says, but she cautions teachers to beware of YouTube videos and online information that isn’t sanctioned by a certified medical professional or organization.

Start small. Teachers just beginning to teach special-needs students should start with small classes of about four to five students, Gomez says, which allows a teacher to focus on individuals’ needs while also developing confidence. Gomez has found the sweet spot for class size is 10 to 12 students, with one lead teacher and two assistant teachers. She also separates her students into groups by age rather than level—ages 3 to 5 and ages 6 to teens.

Classes in the public school system run much larger, from 15 to 30 children, with one lead and two assistant teachers, and support staff of four to eight school teachers, aides, and/or therapists.

Cultivate empathy. Behavior issues can frustrate even the most patient teachers. Gomez advises teachers who work with special-needs children not to forget the struggles their students face. “Can you imagine if everything in your life was a struggle? Getting dressed, eating breakfast, packing your bag for school. What if you had to concentrate so much and struggle though it all?” she asks. “This is real for our students. Everything is a constant struggle and requires an incredible amount of focus.”

Gomez will lead a Rhythm Works Integrative Dance teacher certification workshop July 29–31, 2017, at the DanceLife Retreat Center in Norton, Massachusetts. For more information, visit rhythmworksid.com or danceliferetreat.com.


DSL associate editor Karen White, a former newspaper reporter and freelance writer, has taught dance in private studios and choreographed musicals since age 17 and has no plans to stop.