Dance With Special Populations

    "People dance because dance can change things.  Dance can give hope."
                                                     - Adam Sevani (from the movie Step Up 3-D)      

           Dance can change the shape of our muscles.  Dance can change the nervous system.  Can dance change lives?

            A group of parents of special needs children in the Milford, Connecticut area would say yes.  Each week in the fall their children attend a dance class run by Debra Marchese through the City of Milford’s Adaptive Arts Program.  These children are either on the autism spectrum, have Down Syndrome or have been diagnosed with other disabilities.  As the weeks progress, the classes evolve into rehearsals for a very special production of  The Nutcracker.

            During the class the students are mentored by students from New England Ballet.  Some dance along side the students, some mirror the movements for the students, some provide verbal cues and others provide actual hands-on tactile instruction, guiding a foot to the perfect tendu or arms to the perfect fifth position.

            Not all of the students rush to the barre immediately.  Some hide under tables until coaxed out, and others prefer to continue to talk about the costumes they have been allowed to try on in preparation for the performance.  However, everyone’s excitement is evident through giggles and shouts of, “Is today my special day?”

            As Debra announces that it’s time for Snow, the students rush to the right side of the space to prepare for their entrances.  They are accompanied by their mentors and other members of New England Ballet’s Company.  The New England dancers will act as their co-dancers and their guides, once again providing either verbal, visual or tactile cues which culminate in a beautiful dance.

            The story is shorter than that of the traditional Nutcracker, and the choreography is less complex, but the contagious excitement is there as is the pride of the performers.  This year’s Sugar Plum Fairy pays careful attention to the position of her hands and fingers as she delicately flicks her wrists to the strains of Tchaikovsky’s score while grinning from ear to ear.

            New England Ballet will present the Adaptive Nutcracker Suite for the second year on Friday, December 16, at the Parsons Government Center in Milford at 7 pm. The Milford students will be joined on stage by students from similar classes held in Southport and Trumbull.

            The performance will, undoubtedly, bring tears to the eyes of the audience members, parents, teachers and mentors who will be moved seeing what these children have accomplished, but it will also do more.

            For one brief evening, these special students who must work very hard at socializing, adapting and performing everyday functions that most of us take for granted, will feel the excitement of waiting in the wings, the joy of dancing with their peers and the pride of being applauded by an enthusiastic and appreciative audience.  It is during those moments that others will be able to witness how dance can change lives.

            If you know of other productions like this, please leave me some information in the comment section.  I would love to read about them!


  1. What a wonderful story! Thanks for sharing it. Since I teach children with Autism myself, I'm right there with you! Some of my stories are on dancepulse or on the ALT/space blog. Your blog has a hugely important vision -- thanks for being there!