A disability need not keep a child from enjoying ballet classes.
That’s the message the Gainesville Ballet is spreading this month with the launch of its first class designed solely for children with disabilities. Three 4-year-old girls with developmental delays or autism enrolled in the six-week class, which started Sept. 10.
For years, Gainesville Ballet has opened its mixed-ability classes and performances to children with disabilities, said Lauren Loomis, the organization’s communications director. The new, dedicated program was inspired by the success of children with special needs who have studied in the ballet studio’s dance and music programs, Loomis said.
“We thought it would be a great idea to have a special program for students who may not be able to integrate . . . or who would like to have their own program, where there’s no pressure, and the teacher is trained specifically to deal with children with special needs,” said Managing Director Elysabeth Muscat.
“The big difference for this class is that there’s no pressure,” she said. “The children are going to learn in a really supportive environment, in a small classroom with one teacher with a small ratio of children.”
The class’s lead instructor received special training from Angela Kralik, owner of Casper Minds, a Gainesville-based consulting business that specializes in therapy and advocacy for children with autism.
Kralik said it helps to tell the students specifically what is expected of them, and to give them frequent positive reinforcement. One outcome of the classes, she said, is that “the dancing and the stepping and the hopping and the twirling have a calming effect on children.”
“And this effect can carry into the after-class period. It wouldn’t be uncommon to see that child have a positive experience that extends through that day,” Loomis said. “It has a very calming effect. Your body feels like it’s had a big hug.”
Lead instructor Onica Hobbs said she first tries to make sure the students understand their muscles and how to use them.
“Animals work really well with little guys, so [I have them jump like] frogs — making sure they take off on two feet and land on two feet,” Hobbs said. “Another step that I would introduce later is to put little [circles] on the floor and tell them they’re puddles. Then they have to jump from one foot and land on the opposite foot. [We work on] basic skills like that.
“And balance — we really try to work on balance and pulling their foot up and trying to push their legs together and starting to feel muscles,” she said. “Once they’re ready, and they have that initial balance, then we can work on the rotation of their hips.”
Because some children with sensory processing disorders respond better to visual cues than verbal commands, Hobbs sometimes uses a poster board with pictures of animals to give them directions.
On Wednesday, during the second class session, Hobbs moved her students quickly through a variety of ballet and non-ballet movements, interspersing grand pliés, pas de bourrées and instruction on adagio and allegro with wand wiggles and “Ring Around the Rosie.” She then pulled out a colorful parachute and had the students sit on it and practice pointing and flexing their toes.
The students’ mothers all said their daughters loved the class.
“She was so excited today when I told her it was dance day,” said Sharon Batz of Bristow, whose daughter Anisia is developmentally delayed. “As soon as I said, ‘Let’s get ready,’ she wanted to go right now.”
“It was amazing,” said Sarah Matthews of Nokesville, whose daughter Sophia Bonilla has autism. “She loves it. She drags me in here and wants to come.”
“I am just excited that there is a special-needs program,” Matthews said. “I’ve looked for a long time for anything other than therapy to take her to, and we found this and we love it. I hope it works out.”
Loomis said that Gainesville Ballet plans to start a Saturday class for children with disabilities in October if there is sufficient enrollment. She hopes the class will also attract children with physical disabilities, and the studio has an instructor who is trained to work with them, she said.
“This is a really important message to give to the broader community: that we need to find ways to embrace these children into our programs and enrichment activities — arts programs — that this is something that I think really sets the tone for our society,” Loomis said.
Barnes is a freelance writer.