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
Photo by Jerome Capasso, courtesy of Man in Motion

Finding a male dance instructor who isn't booked solid can be a challenge, which is why a New York City dance educator was inspired to start a network of male dance professionals in 2012. Since then, he's tripled his roster of teachers and is actively hiring.

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

You've got the teaching talent, the years of experience, the space and the passion—now all you need are some students!

Here are six ideas for getting the word out about your fabulous, up-and-coming program! We simply can't wait to see all the talent you produce with it!

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Todd Rosenberg, courtesy of HSDC

This fall Hubbard Street Dance Chicago initiates an innovative choreographic-study project to pair local Chicago teens with company member Rena Butler, who in 2018 was named the Hubbard Street Choreographic Fellow. The Dance Lab Choreographic Fellowship is the vision of Kathryn Humphreys, director of HSDC's education, youth and community programs. "I am really excited to see young people realize possibilities, and realize what they are capable of," she says. "I think that high school is such an interesting, transformative time. They are right on the edge of figuring themselves out."

Keep reading... Show less
Getty Images

Q: What policies do you put in place to encourage parents of competition dancers to pay their bills in a timely manner?

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Photo courtesy of Kim Black

For some children, the first day of dance is a magic time filled with make-believe, music, smiles and movement. For others, all the excitement can be a bit intimidating, resulting in tears and hesitation. This is perfectly natural, and after 32 years of experience, I've got a pretty good system for getting those timid tiny dancers to open up. It usually takes a few classes before some students are completely comfortable. But before you know it, those hesitant students will begin enjoying the magic of creative movement and dance.

Keep reading... Show less
Just for fun
Photo via @igor.pastor on Instagram

Listen up, dance teachers! October 7 is National Frappe Day (the drink), but as dance enthusiasts, we obviously like to celebrate a little differently. We've compiled four fun frappé combinations on Instagram for your perusal!

You're welcome! Now, you can thank us by sharing some of your own frappé favs on social media with the hashtag #nationalfrappeday.

We can't wait to see what you come up with!

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Original photos: Getty Images

We've been dying to hear more about "On Pointe," a docuseries following students at the School of American Ballet, since we first got wind of the project this spring. Now—finally!—we know where this can't-miss show is going to live: It was just announced that Disney+, the new streaming service set to launch November 12, has ordered the series.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Photo by Tony Nguyen, courtesy of Jill Randall

Recently I got to reflect on my 22-year-old self and the first modern technique classes I subbed for at Shawl-Anderson Dance Center in Berkeley, California. (Thank you to Dana Lawton for giving me the chance and opportunity to dive in.)

Today I wanted to share 10 ideas to consider as you embark upon subbing and teaching modern technique classes for the first time. These ideas can be helpful with adult classes and youth classes alike.

As I like to say, "Teaching takes teaching." I mean, teaching takes practice, trial and error and more practice. I myself am in my 23rd year of teaching now and am still learning and growing each and every class.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Misti Ridge teaches class at Center Stage Performing Arts Studio. Photo by Arlyn Lawrence , courtesy of Ridge

The dance teachers who work with kids ages 5–7 have earned themselves a special place in dance heaven. They give artists the foundation for their future with impossibly high energy and even higher voices. Enthusiasm is their game, and talent is their aim! Well, that, self-esteem, a love for dance, discipline and so much more!

These days, teachers often go a step beyond giving tiny dancers technical and performative bases and make them strong enough to actually compete at a national level—we're talking double-pirouettes-by-the-time-they're-5-years-old type of competitive.

We caught up with one such teacher, Misti Ridge from Center Stage Performing Arts Studio, The Dance Awards 2019 and 2012 Studio of The Year, to get the inside scoop on how she does it. The main takeaway? Don't underestimate your baby competition dancers—those 5- to 7-year-olds can work magic.

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Patrick Randak, Courtesy In The Lights PR

The ability to communicate clearly is something I've been consumed with for as long as I can remember. I was born in the Bronx and always loved city living. But when I was 9, a family crisis forced my mom to send me to Puerto Rico to live with my grandparents. I only knew one Spanish word: "hola." I remember the frustration and loneliness of having so many thoughts and feelings and not being able to express them.

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Success with Just for Kix
Courtesy Just for Kix

As a teacher or studio owner, customer service is a major part of the job. It's easy to dread the difficult sides of it, like being questioned or criticized by an unhappy parent. "In the early years, parent issues could have been the one thing that got me to give up teaching," says Cindy Clough, executive director of Just For Kix and a teacher and studio owner with over 43 years of experience. "Hang in there—it does get easier."

We asked Clough her top tips for dealing with difficult parents:

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox