How Creative Force Dance Center launched a special-needs class that ALL students want to take

 

Carson Shade (middle) and Alexandra DePascal (right) perform with their sisters Emily (left) and Maura.

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.”

Chrissy Ray (far right) developed the class by working with Tammy DePascal’s (second from left) daughter, Alexandra

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

Dance Teachers Trending
Barbara Bashaw in Thompson Hall of Columbia Teachers College. Photo by Kyle Froman

Barbara Bashaw has always been a pioneer. Since kicking off her career in education by building a dance program from the ground up at an elementary school in Brooklyn, she's gone on to become an inspiring force in teacher training. Now, as director of the new doctoral program in dance education at Columbia University's renowned Teachers College and as executive director of the even newer Arnhold Institute for Dance Education Research, Policy & Leadership, she's in a position to effect change nationwide.

"The study of dance education is a young field," Bashaw says. "Music and visual arts are far ahead of us, in terms of the research that has been done, as well as the foothold they have in education. Anywhere education is being discussed, we want to put dance on the table—and that means developing researchers and championing research that will push public policy." In a climate where arts education feels both more endangered and more necessary than ever, Bashaw is ready to blaze a trail.

Keep reading...
Instagram
Karen Hildebrand (center) with 2019 DT Awardee Marisa Hamamoto and members of Infinite Flow. Photo by Joe Toreno

Every year in our summer issue, we honor four dance educators for their outstanding contributions to the field. Recipients have included studio owners, professors, program directors, K–12 teachers and more, whose specialties run the gamut of dance genres.

We need your help to identify this year's best in the profession. Do you have a colleague or mentor who deserves to be recognized as a leader and role model?

Send your nomination by March 1, 2020. You can e-mail us at danceteachereditors@dancemedia.com with the following details:

Keep reading...
Sponsored by Akada Software
Photo by Jenny Studios, courtesy of Utah Dance Artists

Running a dance school used to involve a seemingly endless stream of paperwork. But thanks to the advent of software tailored specifically for dance studios' needs, those hours formerly spent pushing papers can now be put to better use.

"Nobody opens a dance studio because they want to do administrative work," says Brett Stuckey, who leads Akada Software's support team. "It's our job to get you out of the office and back into your classroom."

We talked to Stuckey about how a studio software program can streamline operations, so you can put your energy toward your students.

Keep reading...
Dancer Health
Getty Images

It's time to talk seriously about safety in dance education. As the physical and psychological demands put on student dancers escalates—thanks to competitions, social media and ever-evolving choreography—there is a pressing need to consider how we can successfully safeguard young dancers.

Keep reading...
Dance News
Photo by Melissa Sherwood, courtesy of MGDC

Martha Graham Dance Company created The EVE Project to mark the upcoming 100th anniversary of U.S. women's right to vote. The female-focused initiative includes new works, as well as the company's classic repertoire highlighting Martha Graham's heroines and antiheroines. In April, the company is showing the newly reconstructed Circe, Graham's 1963 interpretation of the Greek myth, at New York City Center. Dancing the role of Circe is company member So Young An. Here, she shares thoughts on The EVE Project and how she's approaching her role in Circe, the 57-year-old work that invites audiences to consider pressing conversations about womanhood.

Keep reading...
Dance News
Instead of letting 1920s stereotypes of black dancers define her, Josephine Baker used her image to propel herself to stardom and eventually challenged social perceptions of black women. Photos courtesy of Dance Magazine archives

In honor of Black History Month, here are some of the most influential and inspiring black dancers who paved the way for future generations.

Keep reading...
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

Q: I'm having such a love-hate relationship with mirrors right now. They can be distracting, as well as cause emotional distress for my students. At the same time, they're a really useful tool. I know some teachers remove theirs altogether. Is this something you recommend?

Keep reading...
Dance Teacher Tips

Susan Pilarre has been closely tied to the School of American Ballet for nearly her entire life.

From her first class there at age 11 through her 16-year career with its affiliated company, New York City Ballet, Pilarre learned directly from the great choreographer George Balanchine, absorbing the details of his unique style. Sensing her innate understanding of his principles, Balanchine encouraged her to teach; she joined SAB's permanent faculty in 1986. Since then, she has become recognized as an authority on Balanchine's teachings, instilling SAB and NYCB's distinctive speed, clarity and energy into generations of dancers.

Here, Pilarre shares how the specifics that Balanchine insisted upon in class contribute to the strength, beauty and musicality that define his style—and dispels common misconceptions.

Keep reading...

To celebrate Valentine's Day in the most dance-centric way possible, we sat down with five powerhouse dance-teaching couples to talk about their love stories. What do they admire about each other? What are their couple goals and their teaching philosophies, and how do they make their relationships work, especially when they work together? Get ready to swoon!

Keep reading...
For Parents
Photo by Paul B. Goode, courtesy of BAE

Watching through the studio windows—or even from the sidelines in a Mommy and Me class—can surely make parents wonder what exactly our little tykes are getting out of weekly ballet lessons. After all, they're repeating the same things class after class. Are they bored? Are they progressing? Why are they doing that again?

Keep reading...
Site Network
Photo by Nina Lokmadzhieva, courtesy of Varna IBC

The oldest ballet competition in the world doesn't have the funds for the show to go on: The 29th edition of the Varna International Ballet Competition, scheduled for July 12–30, 2020, has been postponed indefinitely.

Keep reading...
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

Q: I have a 15-year-old student who has problems keeping her heel fully on the ground during a demi-plié. How can I help her?

Keep reading...

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox