The Power of Dance

The Douglas Watt Family Fund for the Performing Arts is helping disabled children learn.

Jessica Zippin works with special needs children at the Riverview School in New York City.

One afternoon, as dance therapist Jessica Zippin led a small group of children in a playful jumping exercise, a 6-year-old named Ashley bounced around joyfully, then suddenly blurted out, “Jump!” When Zippin and the classroom teacher glanced at each other, tears welled up in their eyes.

It was a breakthrough moment for Ashley. She is one of many grade-school students in the New York City school system who have autism, cognitive and/or severe emotional disabilities. The fact that she could connect her physical action with an appropriate verbal descriptor suggests that Zippin’s dance class is making a difference.

Zippin currently works with 70 children like Ashley who attend two NYC schools for special needs children, one in the Bronx and another in Long Island City, Queens. As the director of the dance/movement therapy program of the Douglas Watt Family Fund for the Performing Arts, her goal is not only to bring this type of dance therapy to more schools in NYC, but eventually to build a classroom model that can be replicated in schools nationwide.

“Dance therapy opens up a freer ability for the students to express themselves communicatively, which is so difficult for this population,” says Susan McNulty, principal of The Riverview School in Queens.

Program Origins

Patricia Watt, producer of the annual Fred and Adele Astaire Awards, founded the program in 2010. The Astaire Awards benefits the Douglas Watt Family Fund for the Performing Arts, which funds the dance/movement therapy activities, budgeted at $10,000 per school per year. Zippin, the program’s sole staff member, came on board in 2011.

A dancer her entire life, Zippin has a dance degree from Hobart and William Smith Colleges and a master’s in dance therapy from Pratt Institute. “There’s a therapeutic aspect to dance,” she says, explaining how her career in dance therapy combines her dual passions for dance and psychology. “We’re in our bodies all day, but usually we don’t recognize how we’re moving—and what that communicates. I wanted to help people understand that nonverbal aspect.”

Though she hadn’t worked with special needs children for very long, she was drawn to the way this particular population illustrates her point. “This specific group of children cannot always express their needs through words,” she explains. “But they do express themselves in other ways, often through screaming or tantrums. We need to understand what that is and help them use their bodies to communicate more clearly, even if it means they simply learn the spatial awareness of ‘When I spin around, I bump into someone’ and ‘How do I not do that?’”

In the Classroom

When Zippin first arrived at the Riverview School, she was received with welcoming arms. Classroom teacher Laura Hooghuis says, “I had never experienced dance therapy, and I was eager to see how it would affect my students.”

Nevertheless, Hooghuis was concerned that the freer dance atmosphere might unhinge the structure that is so necessary for a special needs class. “I was initially nervous that transitioning from dance therapy back into academics would be difficult, in terms of getting the kids to settle down again,” she says.

But Zippin’s upbeat attitude and diverse tools have dovetailed well with the school’s approach. “The key that Jessica offers is a structured class that she’s committed to—that the kids can count on,” says McNulty.

“I have ideas and things we can do, along with a general structure that’s repeated each time,” says Zippin. “But it’s important to know with this population that there’s no way to plan exactly how it’s going to go. You have to be receptive to what happened five minutes before, how the kids are feeling, and be flexible to their needs.”

Before the start of every class of six to eight students, Zippin greets each child individually, according to their abilities, from trying to gain eye contact to a verbal hello. She is aided by the primary classroom teacher as well as at least two paras (assistant teachers who are certified as aides to the disabled children). She begins in a semicircle with a gentle warm-up. The classes are grouped by function level rather than age, and Zippin customizes the warm-up to their abilities. “It’s often based on each child offering a movement and everyone else following,” she says. “But for lower-functioning students, we start simply with using music that has directions to follow.” Zippin’s favorite examples include “Listen and Move” or “Can’t Sit Still” by Greg & Steve.

Simple as it is, this start is effective. “Shakel—one of the lower-functioning students in his class—is nonverbal, but he loves to follow movement,” says Zippin. “He normally doesn’t like being the leader. But one day, he stood up and pointed to the prompt board that we should shake our hips. His classmates started clapping, saying ‘Yay, Shakel!’”

After the warm-up, the class moves the chairs aside for more lively movement with music, taking turns leading and following, or following the music’s directions. They might play an imaginative game like becoming animals in a zoo, or an activity-based exercise like play-swimming. “Freeze dance” helps the students learn to start and stop, and finally a cooldown piece called “Quiet Time,” also by Greg & Steve, (the kids call it “the sleeping song”) prepares them for a return to their academic coursework. “It’s an instrumental that I find incredibly calming,” Zippin says. “It’s a time for them to be quiet, which is hard for them. Finally, after a couple of years of working with them, it’s gotten easier.”

“After dance, they can focus more on their other work,” says Riverview School principal Susan McNulty.

Dance Class to Daily Skills

What makes this session so essential isn’t that the children are accruing technical dance skills. Instead, it’s that dance therapy serves as a conduit to myriad other life skills: They gain self-awareness and body control while participating in a joyful group. That’s a situation that is often difficult for these students—and their families—to access.

“Embedded in Jessica’s instruction is the behavioral piece that is directly integrated with what we’re helping the students learn in school,” says Hooghuis. “The kids practice modeling after her, yes, but also taking turns, following multiple step directions, social interaction and requests, and because they are excited about the dance aspect, they are even more engaged and receptive.”

McNulty adds, “After dance, they can focus more on their other work. They’re calmer and seem to use the tools of impulse control and communication they just practiced in dance.”

The results can be quietly miraculous. “One student, Tenzin, never shows any emotion,” says Zippin. “But we found a new song he liked, ‘Goin’ on a Bear Hunt’ [Greg & Steve], and he started giggling. We had never heard him laugh—ever. His peers noticed and were egging him on, laughing with him, running in a circle around him. It was amazing.” DT

Lauren Kay is a dancer and writer based in Florida.

Keep in mind...

Dance therapist Jessica Zippin has developed a number of strategies for success when working with autistic or cognitively disabled children:

  • It’s best to cover mirrors with a curtain so they don’t distract the students.
  • Large spaces can be overwhelming. Find a way to section off a smaller dance area.
  • Props like colored circles, balls and scarves are helpful for sensory integration.
  • Make sure the sound isn’t too loud and that noise from other rooms is blocked.
  • Be patient. With this population, nothing is going to happen instantly.
  • Always check in with the child’s emotional state and meet them at that place. Don’t expect them to come to you.
  • If the class encompasses a mix of functioning levels, be sure to create space for an autistic child to have time away from the group and then rejoin.

Photos courtesy of Douglas Watt Family Fund for the Performing Arts

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