Podcast: Listen to 'This Is Why'
The sound of Tchaikovsky's Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy fills the air as girls clad in frilly light-blue tutus slowly make their way into the ballet studio. Years ago, my heart leapt with joy as I watched my own 5-year-old daughter in ballet class. At the same time, however, I'd felt a void: Where were similar opportunities for the children with whom I worked—kids with special needs?
As I stood watching my daughter lined up with her classmates—learning pirouettes, with each child inspiring the next—I marveled at the stability and control needed for the barre work, the challenging nature of the balance skills, and the speed and agility built into the center floor exercises. I thought, "These are the same skills on which I work with my pediatric physical therapy clients!" Minus the best parts, however—no pretty leotards, no supporting barre, no camaraderie and friendship among classmates, no goal of developing ballerina skills. I longed to provide such opportunities for the special needs children in my life—to wed improvements in quality of life with the joy of moving to Tchaikovsky—and an idea entered my mind. What about a ballet program for children with special needs?
The ideal opportunity arose some years later. While taking my daughter to a class, I met the artistic director of another local ballet studio. Ken Kaiser had been born into a talented family of 4 brothers who performed regularly in ballet and tap and pursued professional dance careers. He recounted to me how, when he was a youngster, he had performed for children with special needs, and how many of his audience members had expressed the wish that they, too, could dance. Ken, like me, long had been drawn to the idea of a ballet program specifically designed for children with special needs. We envisioned a collaborative effort between a ballet instructor and a physical therapist, who together would design a curriculum and conduct the class. Ken knew just the teacher—an individual who was very patient and compassionate. I would be the PT. And so it started, last September.
I'm awed by benefits I see during each and every ballet class. I watch the excited faces as the kids arrive, and their parents tell me how eagerly their daughters have been anticipating this moment. "How many more days until ballet class?" is the oft-repeated question every week. I see kids who are fully engaged in practicing their balance skills. I see young girls gaining poise and confidence during their personal "spotlight," when each can select her best dance steps and perform them in the center of a circle of friends.
The pride on each parent's face is priceless, as they watch their little ballerinas practice fifth position. My face is beaming with pride as well, though likely for different reasons. Look at that increased trunk extension! That emerging rhomboid muscle activation! That improved subtalar alignment!
Parents love seeing their children having so much fun, as do I. But the PT in me is particularly thrilled to see the girls gain flexibility, strength, endurance, fitness, coordination, motor planning, and balance skills without ever realizing just how much therapy they truly are undergoing. On class days, I am so proud of our profession and its transformative effects on the daily lives of those we serve—whether in 1-on-1 clinical settings or at a community-based program where physical therapy meets ballet. At the studio, the worlds of science and art seem a perfect match.
The children may look physically tired after class, but you wouldn't know it by their beaming smiles and happy waves as they leave the studio with their friends. Perhaps they fall asleep in the car on the way home, dreaming of sugar plum fairies.
Elise Ostrander, PT, cofounder of the special needs program at Washington Contemporary Ballet, is a pediatric physical therapist at Mary Bridge Children's Hospital in Tacoma, Washington, and also is employed by Fife School District.
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