July 2017 | Ask Rhee Gold | Special-Needs Students

Advice for dance teachers | Special-Needs Students

Q: Dear Rhee,

This season I introduced a dance class for children with special needs. I taught the class, but with my limited experience it was a huge growth experience for the kids and me. By the end of the season I was thrilled with what we all accomplished.

Because they wanted to do it and they deserved it, I decided to include my new class in the recital. I knew that the audience would be moved by how much these kids love to dance. All went as expected: the kids got a standing ovation, and after the show we got many compliments on the group.

When I got home from the show I found an email from a parent of one of our advanced students who wrote that she was uncomfortable with what she called the “disability performance.” She added that it was depressing and that maybe a dance recital was not the venue for these kids.

Crushed is a mild way to describe how I was feeling, for both the kids and myself. This email arrived immediately after what felt like the best day of the year. I didn’t respond because I was afraid of what I might write. The next day another parent and a good friend of the mother who sent the email basically told me that she felt the same way.

All I kept thinking was, “What if it were your child?” I don’t understand how they could feel uncomfortable while they were watching pure joy on the children’s faces. How could people be so insensitive, and what kind of prejudices are they passing to their children?

I have been silent because I am hoping to come up with a way to turn this circumstance into something positive. —Bewildered Beyond Belief

A: Dear Bewildered,

This is one of those times when I say that a dance education isn’t always about the movement we teach. Consider this an opportunity (more to come on that). I am surprised by the parents’ reactions; I have only seen respect for children or adults with disabilities or learning differences at recitals. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t people out there who still live with a kind of archaic mindset when it comes to people who are different from themselves.

Don’t respond at all; instead, infuse a little acceptance education into your classes. Consider creating a mentor program that brings your advanced dancers and your special-needs dancers together. Your advanced dancers could assist in the class and could be responsible for a one-hour monthly mentoring session with a mentee. Maybe the class and the mentors could attend a performance together. They could dance together in the recital, which certainly would make the uncomfortable moms do a bit of soul-searching.

Consider having your advanced dancers perform at a children’s cancer center or hospital and encourage some post-show interaction between your students and the patients. A Q&A might work, or maybe offer the patients some sort of class. When your students come back to class, discuss the performance, the children they met, and how they felt performing.

You can also create choreography that tackles ideas about acceptance. Maybe your first piece can send the message that dance brings joy to everyone who experiences it. You may be able to incorporate your special-needs class somehow. As you’re creating the choreography, find videos on YouTube of dancers with disabilities, ethnic dance groups, senior citizens who dance, any dance group that’s different from your advanced students, and have your students watch and discuss the videos. Not only will you create a cool piece of choreography, but you’ll offer your students a well-rounded education in the process.

Maybe the comments from these parents are really showing you the path that you need to dance down. You could make it your mission to educate the kids, their parents, and your community through the art of dance. How cool is that? Enjoy the journey. —Rhee