PBT Pilots Adaptive Dance Classes for Students with Autism

From the viewing window in the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre lobby, parents watch their children take center-studio. From barre to center exercises, the students are moving through a classic ballet class, but this group of students is actually part of a unique new series.

In collaboration with Autism Connection of PA, PBT piloted an adaptive dance class series this month for middle-and-high-school students with autism spectrum disorders. The classes, based on modified choreography from The Nutcracker, feature a live pianist, adjusted lighting and adapted teaching methods.

During warmup at the barre, the pianist plays Chim Chim Cheree from Mary Poppins, and 15-year-old Colton Vasquez, born with Down syndrome and sensory sensitivities, pliés to the music.  He and seven other children are learning beginning ballet and cumulative choreography during four, hour-long Sunday sessions. Although the classes are adapted, PBT instructors Kaila Lewis and Jamie Murphy don’t underestimate the students; they challenge, guide and encourage more. Colton’s mother, Candy Vasquez, calls this kind of teaching “presumed competency.”

“Autism looks different in everyone,” Vasquez said, adding that the autism spectrum covers such a wide range of characteristics.

The pianist plays Someday my Prince will Come from Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Colton walks away from the circle to practice by himself at the barre, but a teacher guides him back to the group with a hand on his shoulder.

“That is why PBT’s class is so successful,” Vasquez said. “The teachers presumed the kids could do these things, and so they’ve improved.”

Another mother adds, “They were even using the original French terms for dance positions.”

PBT’s partnership with Autism connection of PA – and inspiration for the adaptive dance classes –  began last season with the company’s first-ever, sensory-friendly production of The Nutcracker, which created a supportive theater setting for patrons with autism, sensory sensitivities and other special needs. Autism Connection of PA and its executive director, Luciana Randall, provided pivotal support to develop best practices for performance adaptations, training for staff and dancers, theater accommodations and communications with the special needs community.

These two organizations will continue to collaborate on PBT’s 2014-2015 sensory-friendly performances of The Nutcracker, onstage Tuesday, Dec. 23, at 2 p.m., and a brand-new story ballet: Lew Christensen’s Beauty and the Beast, Friday, Feb. 13, at 11 a.m. Accommodations range from relaxed house rules and reduced sound levels to quiet areas and activity stations in the lobby.

Autism Spectrum Disorders affect 1 in 88 children in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The effects of autism are unique to every individual, though ASD characterizations usually include difficulties with social interaction and communication. Many children with autism have sensory sensitivities in response to sounds or sights, which is one of the focused areas of adaptation for autism-friendly productions.

“Last season, we were able to open up the performance experience to people and families living with autism,” said Alyssa Herzog Melby, PBT’s director of education and community engagement. “Another huge part of our mission is offering the highest-quality dance education, and the natural next step was to ensure that students with autism can move beyond being a spectator and actively engage in this art form.”

The teachers end the class by practicing a modified sequence from The Nutcracker. One mother films the routine because she says her son remembers the motions to practice at home, but she cannot.

As per tradition in ballet, the class applauds at its close – thanking the teachers for their time. But today, everyone joins in and claps for the students and the success of the class series.

 “I always emphasize that our kids are more like their peers than they are different,” Vasquez said. “They want the same things; they just need them presented in a different way. This ballet class is a way to give them the same opportunities as everyone else.”

PBT hopes to offer additional Adaptive Dance classes in the future. For more information, please contact Alyssa Herzog Melby at amelby@pittsburghballet.org or412-454-9105