Boston Ballet's groundbreaking Adaptive Dance program celebrated its 15th anniversary this year and continues to empower students with disabilities -- and their families -- in incredible, unexpected ways extending far beyond the studio.
"This has been better than anything I could have ever hoped for," said Monika Ostroff, whose 10-year-old daughter Danniah is beginning her third season.
Run under Boston Ballet's Education & Community Initiatives (ECI) arm, Adaptive Dance is comprised of three specialized dance classes: one for people with Down syndrome (ages 2 through adult), another for individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ages 5 through adult), and a third inclusive class for students of all abilities (ages 5 through adult).
Held across Boston Ballet's Boston, Newton, and North Shore studios, the weekly classes -- the first of their kind -- pair dancers with licensed physical therapists, professional musicians, and specially trained Boston Ballet faculty to offer world-class instruction to all. As its Adaptive Dance introductory video begins: "At Boston Ballet, we believe that dance is for everyone."
"The goal of the program, and our entire department, is to create access so everyone can enjoy dance, share the love of dance together, and experience it," said Portia Abernathy, ECI assistant director. "It's something we're proud of and see as important to cultivating the next generation of arts participants and arts goers."
"Our students are amazing and so talented," said Emily Singleton, an Adaptive Dance instructor and ECI faculty member. "I think there's probably a preconceived notion that this would be a watered-down version of dance, but it really isn't. The kids really rise to the high expectations we have of them. If we keep our expectations high, they'll keep meeting them."
"Our curriculum is aligned with our Boston Ballet School system and Boston Public School standards," Abernathy added. "We aim to set a high bar and our students reach it. They learn the technique. They learn the vocabulary. They perform and all the while have a really wonderful time. There are accommodations and modifications in place to make sure it's accessible, but it's definitely not watered down."
"Boston Ballet is awesome about not seeing limits," Ostroff noted. "No matter where you go, most people will give you an explanation, 'This child can't do X because of....' They don't do that. Everything is fair game and they're very good about what they do. They believe every kid can do everything. The kids rise to the occasion."
Dancers are placed in classes according to age, and Abernathy reports that five adults with disabilities are employed with ECI as teaching assistants for the younger classes: "We hope there's a lifelong pipeline of engagement so that our students can start at 2 and never leave and even move into the teaching role if they choose."
The September through May program, which consists of 50 part-time employees and volunteers, culminates in a May Showcase event, in which all classes perform for their families.
"It's a really fun opportunity to see all the students' progress and really show off their stuff," Abernathy said. "When all the groups are together, the younger families can see some of the older students and really see what's possible, and the older students and families can remember how far they've come."
"Some of my students with autism are sensitive to noise and light, and here they are out there with loud music dancing," Singleton added. "It's the most transformative thing. Dance is a performance art, you need to be able to show it. It's so empowering to see them get out there, perform, and be proud of what they've done. It's a great culmination of the program."
"I cry every year, usually not for my kid, either," Ostroff laughed. "Everybody is there in this one big celebration of these kids and their families. You wish it could be longer because you want to stay in that moment. And it comes at the same time as all the other kids' recitals, so it feels like part of the full extracurricular movement, which I think is very important to [Danniah]." Benefits beyond the studio Adaptive Dance classes have proven to be a place where students can make great strides in several areas, starting with physical development, Abernathy said.
"We really see students improving their balance and coordination, a lot of their gross motor skills that may be delayed in terms of meeting milestones," she noted. "There's something about dance that all of a sudden makes meeting these milestones and learning these techniques, balance, and coordination a lot more fun. All of a sudden, when you're in a group setting and the music is playing, and everyone is having a really joyful time, you don't realize you can balance on one foot for 8 seconds."
In any studio, dance classes teach students far more than just how to execute a jazz square, or the difference between first position and fifth position. Learning technique, following choreography, and making corrections takes attention, concentration, and focus. The same holds true in Adaptive Dance classes, Abernathy said, making them a place where students learn real-world skills that will benefit them far beyond the barre.
"Students have improved self esteem, feeling a sense of leadership and pride and also self control, not only over their physical body, but the ability to wait, the ability to work together," she said.
They also make progress interpersonally, she added, improving their ability to work with peers, the physical therapist, musicians, and instructor to move and create dance together: "There's a lot in the dance studio you learn and skills you develop that are really transferrable to many other aspects of life."
Ostroff can attest to that. When Danniah was 7, Ostroff longed to enroll the music- and dance-loving girl, who has autism, in a dance class, only to find there weren't any offered locally for her age.
"I felt really bad. She's always known the kids in her class go off and do things. They play soccer or lacrosse or dance. They talk about all that stuff and she didn't have any of that in her life."
Ostroff searched online for a specialized dance class and found the Adaptive Dance program -- 90 minutes away from her home near New Hampshire's seacoast. Despite the considerable commute, she enrolled Danniah two years ago, and said she's astounded at its myriad effects on her family.
"My thought was, OK this is great, I'm going to drive an hour and a half to give this kid a chance to dance for an hour. That's not what happened; it literally opened up a whole different world.
What was magical is she and I both came away with some really good friends that I don't think either of us was planning on," she said. "The whole class is pretty tight knit. It's become way more than just dance."
Ostroff and her daughter have been skiing with friends from class and regularly get together year-round.
"Kids on the spectrum, at least my kid, tend to be highly routine-oriented and ritualized. Because of Boston Ballet Adaptive Dance and because I've met these other people, my daughter has been motivated in the most natural way to make progress in other areas."
And in very unexpected ways. Ostroff points to a recent trip to Story Land, a place in which her daughter typically had a very set routine in terms of the few rides she would enjoy and in what order. When she recently visited the park with a friend from her Adaptive Dance class, Ostroff reports Danniah enjoyed a multitude of rides she never would have attempted before -- and loved it.
"These are things she would not do, and we wouldn't have had that opportunity if we hadn't been with our dance friends," Ostroff notes. "It's been awesome. I can't even tell you how amazing it's been."
The connection with other families they met through dance and the ability to simply meet up at a local festival and enjoy the day together have delivered Ostroff a parenting benefit those outside the special needs community may take for granted.
"She's my only child, I don't have a lot of 'normal' parenting experiences other parents have. It's not like I've never been someplace with neurotypical kids and their parents, but we don't have the same commonalities," she explained. "This has connected me to people in that same situation, so we have our same 'normal' experiences.
"Connection is healing, and it's vital to be healthy in life, and I was really missing some deeper connections because there was such a lack of commonality between me and my other friends," she continued. "And now, having this niche group has just been such a blessing for the whole family, it's almost hard to put it into words."
As the first specialized dance class for children with special needs, over the years Boston Ballet began fielding questions about their model from dance professionals beyond Eastern Massachusetts.
"In the beginning, it was less formal," Abernathy said. "People would call or email or stop by for a visit, and we were finding there was more and more demand. We were getting more inquiries from people saying, 'We want to do this work and we don't exactly know how. Can you tell us what you do? Can you tell us how to do it?'"
This led to the creation four years ago of a two-day teacher training conference, where studio owners and dance professionals come to Boston to meet the Adaptive Dance team and learn how to create their own program.
This summer, the conference hosted 60 international participants who came to learn from Adaptive Dance staff and hear from students' parents, as well as partners such as Boston's Children's Hospital.
"It's been very powerful to see this impact spread," Abernathy said. "We only have so many studios and so many staff, so of course there are limits to our capacity. But through this training it almost, in a way, feels limitless."