Defining Moment Pointed Pleasures Helping children with disabilities experience the power of dance. By Michelle McGuire, PT, MPT | September 2019 Listen to 'Defining Moment' author. When I was growing up, I spent a lot of time in dance studios with teachers who were true mentors. They taught me not only the joys of dance, but also how to care for myself physically and emotionally. It was hard and disciplined work, but dance wasn't approached like a competitive sport. It was, rather, a means of self-expression and community. I tended to be shy and reserved back then, but I always was comfortable in my own skin when I was dancing. During my high school years—a time when I was consumed with dance—my grandfather had an accident on his farm that required extensive rehabilitation. I observed the restorative work of the caring and motivating physical therapists who were instrumental in his recovery. That experience and my love of dance together led me toward a career in physical therapy, because I wanted to help others move their bodies freely. I did not want to let go of my artistic pursuits, though. So, while I pursued my prerequisites for physical therapist education as an undergraduate at Centre College in Kentucky, I danced as part of a major in dramatic arts. In graduate school, I quickly realized that I wanted to pursue a career in pediatrics. I'd had more than 30 cousins in my extended family when I was a kid. I always loved playing and interacting with them, and I'd been a nanny to several children over the summers. I felt that pediatrics would be the perfect outlet for sharing with young people the creativity I'd developed through dance and in my liberal arts education. I was fortunate to land a position with Cincinnati Children's Hospital right after completing the masters of physical therapy program at the University of Cincinnati. I loved my job, but I wanted to merge my twin passions for dance and pediatric physical therapy. I just didn't know how to do it. Then, a mentor alerted me to a New York Times article about an adapted dance program for children with disabilities. "This is it!" I thought. "This is what I want to do!" But first, I knew, I'd need to learn and grow in my new role as pediatric physical therapist. While I was doing so, I stayed active in dance by taking DanceFix—a high-energy dance workout class offered by the Cincinnati Ballet Company (CBC). Those classes kept me connected to the dance community while providing me with great stress relief. Through DanceFix, I could step away from my rewarding but intense job a couple of hours a week to immerse myself in joyful movement. Six years later, in 2014, Cincinnati Children's Hospital's Department of Occupational and Physical Therapy was approached by Julie Sunderland, CBC's director of education—who I knew at the time as a DanceFix instructor—about collaborating with CBC to create an adapted dance program. As you might imagine, I jumped at the opportunity! That was the start of Ballet Moves—a program designed to encourage creative expression and foster love of dance in children with special and specific needs. I've been involved with the program ever since, and I've watched it—and our dancers—grow and develop. In fact, Ballet Moves has been much more successful than I'd initially dared imagine it could be. At first, I'd envisioned the program primarily as giving participants an alternative to traditional physical therapist services. I saw it as place where students could develop their gross motor skills in a fun and engaging environment. But Ballet Moves has become so much more. It has reinvigorated and amplified everything I cherished about dance when I was a young girl—the spirit of community, the opportunity for self-expression, the thrilling release of movement—and it's allowed me to share all of it with people who seldom have access to such opportunities. I've been particularly touched by one of our dancers who has been part of the program from the beginning. She is primarily nonverbal and uses sign language to communicate. Because of her issues with expressive communication, many people assume that she also has receptive language difficulties—that she doesn't understand what's being said to or asked of her. But that's not the case. She needs a little extra time to process things, but she gets everything. In Ballet Moves, she's given all the extra time she needs, and she's encouraged to be independent and is challenged to try new things. She has the freedom she needs to grow and develop. She has seized on those opportunities to thrive. Her strength and confidence have grown dramatically. She has no problem expressing herself physically. She knows all the dance moves. In fact, she will dance for hours if you let her. She never loses focus or becomes fatigued. Not only that, but she's taken the skills she's gained in class and transferred them to other pursuits. She's participated on a cheerleading team and has performed in a CBC production. This young woman dances with such joy and enthusiasm that she lights up the room. But her transformation is just one of many. Earlier this year, some dancers who have been with the program from the onset had the opportunity to perform in the Cincinnati Ballet Academy's spring production. Watching them onstage—smiling, having fun, and engaging with the audience—and seeing the pride on their parents' faces, I thought to myself, "This is what it's all about." Ballet Moves has deeply moved me by allowing me to share with our dancers something that has great enriched my own life from a very early age. Michelle McGuire, PT, MPT, is the coordinator of the Division of Occupational Therapy and Physical Therapy at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.