Carson cannot wait for Wednesdays. That’s the day the 16-year-old takes Force Friends, a 45-minute technique class designed for dancers with special needs. Carson, who has Down syndrome, knows that she will be dancing and socializing with friends, which includes her 14-year-old sister Emily. Emily takes Force Friends in addition to her competition team class schedule so she can share her love of dance with her sister. “This is my favorite class of the week!” says Emily. The two sisters practice dance combinations together at home. “It made them closer,” says their mother Lisa Shade. “They’ve really developed a close bond.”
The National Center for Learning Disabilities recommends dance classes like Force Friends because they provide special-needs students with a feeling of self-worth and confidence. But as Tammy DePascal discovered when she started Force Friends at her studio in the Baltimore, Maryland, area, dance also provides a social way to learn about sequencing, rhythm and following directions. It helps the students learn essential life skills, like how to count, and about directions, coordination and motor control.
DePascal’s own 16-year-old daughter, Alexandra, is a member of the class. Indeed one of the reasons she opened her studio, Creative Force Dance Center, two years ago, is that she wanted Alexandra to take dance classes in a safe, social, inclusive environment.
Creative director Chrissy Ray teaches the weekly class, which is composed of a core group of six disabled dancers (middle- and high-school aged). The disabled dancers are partnered with nondisabled students who volunteer as dance buddies to demonstrate steps, provide encouragement or do partner work. Most weeks there are more nondisabled peers in the class.
“Force Friends is geared to let the students be individuals. It’s not focused just on kids with disabilities,” says Shade. “The name of the class sets the tone. It’s more about developing friendships and socializing in a natural environment. And when kids see their nondisabled peers dance, it pushes them to want to do more.”
While there are many general programs geared toward children with disabilities, often the main goal of those programs is just to get them out of the house, Shade says. “But if you get them together as a group—all girls with Down syndrome, for example—they often don’t know how to talk or continue conversations,” she says. “And, they don’t always want to get together with each other all the time. This is where this class is really nice.”
She goes on to say that some dance studios offer special-needs classes but that they don’t always know how to truly challenge these students. “They have these kids doing a somersault or clapping, and these kids can do a lot more than that,” Shade says. “You just have to be patient and flexible to their needs and also support and push them.”
For instance, she notes that one of the ways Carson needs support is that she tires easily due to having had two open-heart surgeries, and from hypotonia caused by Down syndrome. “She’s not able to join Special Olympics, but she’s always been interested in dancing with her sister,” Shade says. “Some days Carson is really tired after school, and so Chrissy will say, ‘Why don’t you sit and listen?’ or ‘How about you play the music today?’ Chrissy is very patient and flexible.”
Ray developed her approach to teaching Force Friends by spending time with DePascal’s daughter Alexandra. Ray uses creative movement, ballet, jazz and improvisation to encourage the dancers to try new skills while promoting self-esteem, confidence, self-expression and creativity. Depending on ability and students’ ages, she teaches the same basic dance techniques she would for nondisabled dancers—the pace just might be slower. Each class includes a warm-up, an across-the-floor segment, a combination and some sort of improvisation. “It’s a place to come in and be themselves and just have fun,” Ray says. “I try to keep them happy and moving.”
The dance buddy system has been extraordinarily successful. “Since we started the program, we have had more kids volunteer and wanting to be a part of it,” DePascal says. “They discover how amazing dancers with disabilities can be. They form friendships and a better understanding of what binds us all together. It is really incredible to watch.”
“There are not many places where my daughter can go and feel comfortable and be who she is,” says DePascal, who plans to launch a second program for children who have an interest in musical theater.
One notable aspect of Force Friends is that it challenges the participants with an opportunity to perform at the spring recital. Last year, the dancers brought down the house during their three-minute piece. “Everyone was their own individual in the piece,” Shade says. “One of the girls likes to run, so they incorporated that into the dance, and it was very natural for her to do it. Carson is very flexible, so she got to put her leg up a lot. They had a full routine, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the audience.” DT
Hannah Maria Hayes holds an MA in dance education, American Ballet Theatre pedagogy emphasis, from New York University.
Tips for starting your own program“Starting a class with special-needs children can seem scary or overwhelming,” says Creative Force Dance Center’s Tammy DePascal. “But I promise that anyone who steps outside the box and works with kids like this will never be sorry for doing so.”She suggests the following considerations:
- Avoid describing the class as only a special-needs class. Children with disabilities don’t want to be reminded of that label.
- Hire a teacher who will be patient, flexible and willing to change lesson plans if needed—whether it’s for one student or all students. If something isn’t working, then try something else.
- Find a mentor in the community to help you with any questions or concerns that might arise. That might be a parent, a social worker or even another studio owner who has experience working with children who have disabilities.
- Don’t be afraid of what is different. Students will definitely give cues if they are uncomfortable.
- Keep open and honest lines of communication with all parents, so you can understand each child’s needs and health concerns.
- Keep class time to about 45 minutes to maximize the dancers’ attention spans. Keep the dancers challenged and inspired. Don’t underestimate their abilities.
- Focus on positive energy, and make sure your dancers feel good about themselves while they learn new movement skills. Help facilitate conversations naturally.
- Canvas parents about class times that would be most convenient for the majority of them or what type of class their children would be most interested in. You want families to commit long-term to the program.
- Involve other children from your studio. Kids love helping out as assistants or dance partners, and it helps in developing new friendships at the studio and in the local schools.
Photo (top) by Bill Dingman, courtesy of Creative Force Dance Center; courtesy of Creative Force Dance Center