Peering though the large window at the circle of ballerinas, I watched my 3-year-old daughter Holly tendu in the middle of the studio. All of the dance students were wearing identical black leotards, pink tights and pink ballet shoes. Following the teacher’s lead, they did a plié to music from “Swan Lake.”
Holly toe-walked away from the circle toward the window until she reached the barre that was partially obstructing the glass. She repeatedly ran her hand slowly along the wooden surface of the barre. I moved my index finger back and forth rapidly only inches away from the glass, trying to motion her back to the group. But Holly continued to run her hand along the barre. If it weren’t for the glass separating us, I could almost touch her. My daughter was oblivious to the stares of the other parents, but I heard the whispers. One father was worried what the performance would look like at the end of the year if she couldn’t even stay in the circle during class.
Six months earlier, knowing Holly was different from other girls her age and unsatisfied with doctors who were convinced she had just a language delay, I did hundreds of hours of medical research. That led me to suspect she had an autism spectrum disorder. I knew then that I also had autism. We share the main characteristics of the disorder: impaired social interactions, repetitive routines and sensory challenges. A clinical psychologist tested both of us, and we were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder on the same day.
When I was a preschool-aged ballerina like Holly, I enjoyed running my hand down the barre and imitating my teacher’s graceful moves. The soothing sounds of classical music were a haven compared with the erratic noises of everyday life. When Holly was barely 2 years old, she couldn’t verbalize it, but I knew how much she wanted to do ballet. Every night before bed, she flipped to the page filled with pink objects in her favorite board book, “My First Colors,” and pointed to the ballet shoes and tutu. She learned her first ballet moves from Peppa Pig and Angelina Ballerina. She had to wait a year until she was old enough to join the youngest ballet class in our area.
I watched her running around the dance store fascinated with the mannequins in colorful leotards and tutus. I had strict instructions from the ballet studio staff to buy a simple black leotard, and pink ballet shoes and tights. The young ballerinas were also discouraged from wearing a tutu, so they would be less likely to admire themselves in the mirror. I followed the rules, even though it took all the fun out of choosing an outfit.
On the fourth day of Holly’s ballet class, my husband came home early with her.
“What happened?” I said.
He looked over at Holly, who was humming and dancing around our kitchen.
“They removed her from the class because she wasn’t participating enough,” he said.
I called the woman who was in charge of the studio that day. “Couldn’t my daughter’s applied behavior analysis therapist, who goes with her to preschool, attend ballet class with her?” I pleaded.
“The ballet director said she isn’t willing to make any accommodations,” she said.
With tears rolling down my face, I hung up the phone. How could they exclude Holly? I never saw her happier than when she slipped on ballet shoes. Holly deserved a place in that class. I was furious. I imagined the bad reviews I could write on the ballet studio’s website and thought about calling back with threats to write about her exclusion in the newspaper.
I held on to that anger for a couple of months, before I learned to let it go. A studio that wasn’t willing to make accommodations for Holly wasn’t the right place for her. In the process of letting go of my anger, I stopped blaming myself for her autism, which had haunted me since her diagnosis, even if I never admitted it. I began to focus on helping her navigate the world as an autistic girl, an experience I could relate to.
I talked to the principal at Holly’s preschool about offering dance classes. It turned out she was already looking to hire a ballet teacher. Within a month, Holly and her older sister Noelle (who doesn’t have an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis) started a combined ballet and tap class at their preschool. When I went with my girls to the dance store to buy tap shoes and a full ballet outfit for Noelle, we picked out colorful tutus, which were encouraged in the new class.
The class started early in the morning, before I went to work. Some days Holly ran in and executed a better pirouette than any of the other girls in the class. Other days, she refused to step into the room. The dance class was held before her ABA therapist arrived at the preschool, so I went in with Holly when she needed me. Kneeling behind her in a pantsuit, I shadowed her while gently moving her arms and legs. Holly smiled as she watched her limbs move like a puppet in the mirror to the rhythm of the music.
At the Christmas performance a few months later, she stood in the middle of the stage perfectly still. She looked beautiful with her hair in a bun and her Cinderella-like dress with a satin black top and flowing cream-colored bottom. Holly stared off in the distance while the other ballerinas, including Noelle, danced around her. The expectation to dance in an unfamiliar room, with the ballet teacher guiding her from below the stage, not to mention the large crowd of parents and grandparents staring at her, was too much for her to handle. But she didn’t cry or complain, and I was proud of her. She did the best she could given the change in routine.
Holly’s exclusion from a ballet studio didn’t exclude her from ballet, and our bond became stronger when I found a more inclusive place for her to dance. Now, we’ll always have ballet connecting us.
Jennifer Malia is an English professor at Norfolk State University working on a book, part memoir and part science writing, about autism and gender.
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