Miracle Worker

In 1990, Diane Chambers, owner of Diane Moore Dance Academy in Jeffersontown, Kentucky, was approached by the mother of a 6-year-old girl named Julie who was born with spina bifida, a birth defect that causes abnormal development of the spinal cord. After being turned away from other studios, Julie’s mother was desperate to fulfill her daughter’s wish to take dance lessons. “I thought it would be wonderful to do that for a little child with a dream,” says Chambers. Julie blossomed in class with the other dancers, and she even learned how to do a mean shuffle step on crutches.

Word spread that Chambers could work wonders with special needs children, and soon she had enough special students to form a separate class. Almost 20 years later, there are approximately 50 “miracle dancers” enrolled in her academy, who not only take class, but perform as well.

Chambers’ students range in age from 4 to 40, and they have conditions such as autism, Down’s syndrome, blindness, deafness, cerebral palsy and spina bifida. When forming her class, Chambers split her students into age groups, ranging from the Junior Miracles (ages 4 and up) to the Senior Miracles (ages 12 and up) to the Miracles in Motion group for ages 18 and up. The dancers are assisted by helpers, a mixture of academy students and instructors, who volunteer their time. Classes incorporate stretching, barre work, counting out rhythms and learning a routine.

The Miracle Dancers perform in recitals and at local community events, and they have made several television appearances. A couple of years ago, Chambers even registered the dancers in the open category at a dance competition. “It was so quiet when they went onstage,” says Chambers. “But they ended up bringing the house down. They received a standing ovation; the judges were all crying. And at the end of the competition, another school came up and gave all of their trophies to the Miracle Dancers.”

For Chambers, the keys to teaching children with disabilities are constantly coming up with imaginative solutions and never giving up. Like the time one child in a wheelchair wanted to tap dance: The instructors made a wooden table to fit across her wheelchair, then attached taps to gloves so she could tap with her hands. Or, as when a blind student wanted to do a solo during a recital but was afraid of falling off the stage, Chambers and her team solved the problem by placing a rug onstage so she could feel where she danced.

There are other success stories. A few years ago, a 9-year-old autistic boy named Aaron came in for private lessons, but spent the whole time running circles around the studio. When Chambers warned his mother that dancing might not work out, the distraught look on her face made Chambers reconsider. She discovered that by offering Aaron a reward—playing with the microphone, for instance, or tossing pom-poms—she could help him focus, and he slowly responded. When he turned 12, Aaron performed a tap number during a recital—something no one could have imagined happening three years earlier. “You have to be very creative in finding the individual talent and strength of each child so they will feel beautiful onstage,” says Chambers.

Because the families of special needs children have many expenses, Chambers recently founded a nonprofit called the Miracle Dancers Scholarship Foundation to request grants and donations for costumes and tuition. “I want each child, especially kids with special needs, to have the opportunity to be in the arts and love dance,” says Chambers.

For more information about the Miracle Dancers or the foundation, visit www.dianemooredance.com. DT

Fiona Kirk is a freelance journalist based in New York City.

Seven Tips for Teaching Special Needs Students

The rewards of working with special needs students can be tremendous, but doing so requires attention and preparation. We asked experienced teachers to share their advice.

Learn about each student.
Use pre-enrollment screenings or pre-application forms to find out all you can about the student’s particular disability, his or her physical challenges, special requirements and personality. Ask parents about favorite things, likes and dislikes, what sets a child off and what has a calming effect. “We had one autistic girl who loved heavy metal rock music,” says Christine Rich of the Christine Rich Dance Academy and Performing Arts Center in Savoy, Illinois. “We didn’t have any at the studio, so we had to find some. We played it, and she calmed right down.”

Choose whether to separate special needs students, or to integrate them into an existing class.
There are reasons to consider both approaches—it depends on your particular students. Rich discovered that her seven Down’s syndrome students functioned well together in a group. However, her autistic dancers were uncomfortable in any kind of class setting, so she teaches them privately. At Kennedy Dance Theatre in Webster, Texas, Director Mary Lee Kennedy separates her 45-minute special needs classes by age (age 3 to 7, then age 7 and up) rather than by diagnosis, and includes 12 in each. Elizabeth Fernandez-Flores, director of the New York City–based New American Youth Ballet, works with students on an individual basis before integrating them into standard classes. Those with unacceptable or violent behavior are taught in 15-minute private lessons. In the Boston Ballet School’s “Adaptive Dance” program, Down’s syndrome students have their own class. “This is their one opportunity to have fun with friends like themselves,” says Michelina C. Cassella, director of the Department of Physical Therapy and Occupational Therapy Services at the Children’s Hospital Boston.

Ensure there is adequate assistance during class.
A parent accompanies all special needs students to class or private lessons at Rich’s studio, and at Kennedy Dance, every student has a “buddy,” an advanced dancer that helps the student manipulate movement. In the Boston Ballet School’s program, each class of a dozen Down’s syndrome students is assisted by a teacher, physical therapist and several adult volunteers.

Keep the dance movements simple.
Both autistic and Down’s syndrome children can generally do simple movements, such as walking, hopping, jumping, demi-pliés, tendus, galloping, heel steps and toe steps, along with patterns, like four marches, four claps. A general rule is to teach a few levels lower than the student’s age. For example, for an 8-year-old, play age-appropriate music, but try techniques at a 5-year-old level. Curriculum can vary. The younger class at Kennedy Dance studies tap, ballet and tumbling, while the older class does hip hop and tumbling. Again, talking to parents is important, since some children should not be attempting somersaults because of neck concerns.    

Adapt to special requirements.
The structure and flow of class will vary depending on your particular students. Rich, for instance, found that autistic students require more attention to transitions and more visuals, such as breaking the classroom clock into colored segments. She tells her students, “We will work on this step while the clock is blue, then go on to another step when the hands point to red,” and she also allows plenty of time to adjust to new concepts. It is often necessary for autistic children to exit the class to calm down. At Boston Ballet, the piano accompanist proved to be a distraction and was quickly replaced with a percussionist beating out strong rhythms. Also, the teacher stands with his back to the students rather than facing the class, because the students better imitate than reflect movement. To teach right from left, a teacher can place colored tape on ballet shoes. To help students stay focused, some dancing can be done while sitting in chairs.

Decide what type of performance outlet best suits your special students.
Whether special needs students participate in the recital is an individual studio choice. Kennedy put special thought into her recital experience. The special needs students were provided a separate area in the dressing rooms, where parents were allowed. The class performed very early in the show, “buddies” danced onstage, and the children could leave immediately after their performance. Rich, on the other hand, after discussions with parents, decided her special needs students would be more comfortable giving a small in-class performance.

Find the right teachers.
Cassella knew the success of Boston Ballet’s Adaptive Dance program depended in part on finding the right teacher. Gianni Di Marco, a company corps de ballet member, has the “right personality and temperament—enthusiastic, patient and creative, with a sense of humor,” she says. Other teachers, such as Jennifer Holbert of Kennedy Dance Theatre have a lifelong interest in working with special needs children. A good rule of thumb is to look for teachers who have worked regularly with children ages 5 and under. —Karen White

Further Study

To increase your confidence when working with this population, consider additional training in early childhood development and/or dance therapy. Suzi Tortora, who runs a clinical dance movement psychotherapy practice in New York City, recommends that teachers begin with a basic child development class, progressing to more specialized courses relating to the specific disabilities of students. “Every class should discuss how children with special needs process the environment differently, and their ability or inability to attend—that is, to hold their attention at a physical level,” Tortora says. “Courses should also discuss how to appropriately use supports and aides to help integrate the child into the class in a way that feels natural.” Tortora particularly recommends the programs at the 92nd Street Y in New York, Drexel University in Pennsylvania and Antioch University New England in New Hampshire, but notes that good courses are available at schools nationwide. —Margaret Fuhrer

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