Me: What motivated you to start a ballet class for children with disabilities?
Sarah Suggitt-Nixon: Emily started ballet when she was three. At Emily’s first recital we were all in the audience, with Katie on my knee. Katie watched the other girls her age up on the stage and kept pointing to herself saying “I want to do it” and at the time I’m in tears thinking, how are we going to make this happen?
Me: How did you create the class?
Sarah Suggitt-Nixon: Katie was having a therapy session with Barb MacDonald, her occupational therapist, and I asked her “What do you think of this idea of starting a ballet class for kids like Katie?” She said “I think it’s great to find activities that are useful from a therapy perspective, but the kids don’t think it’s therapy.” She offered to volunteer her time. We found a book called Ballerina Dreams about a class in New York for children with cerebral palsy, but in talking to the staff, it sounded like an expensive program to start. It seemed to me that we should try to find a school in Toronto that was already established and would entertain a class for these girls, so I called the director of Emily’s school at Turning Pointe. She said: “Wow, I love that idea. I’d like to figure out how to make it happen.”
Me: How does the class work?
Sarah Suggitt-Nixon: There are about six girls, aged five and six. The ballet teacher took the typical program she does and adapted it a little. Turning Pointe helped us find high-school student volunteers to be one-on-one helpers with each child. The volunteers have stools on wheels and in Katie’s case one holds her waist to help her stand up. They do a lot of coaching to remind her to reach her arms straight up over her head, or not to cross her feet or to lift her foot up. They work at the barre and work with colourful scarves to do the arm movements. Katie doesn’t use her voice device in the class, but Barb printed off some sheets so she could pick colours for different games they do in a circle. They use the same moves and music that they use in the classes for typically-developing children.
Me: How did they know how to adapt the program for each child?
Sarah Suggitt-Nixon: The occupational therapist put together a two-pager for parents to fill out to give a picture of their diagnosis and relevant information on how their little dancer moves and she met them on the first day and worked with the student volunteers. We didn’t do a lot of preparation as far as meeting with the dancers or volunteers up front. We told them “If you want to come and be a dancer, come, and if you want to come and be a volunteer, great,” and then we figured it out from there.
Me: What impact has the class had on Katie?
Sarah Suggitt-Nixon: She loves it. Saturday mornings in our house are ballet. Emily goes at 9:15 and Katie goes at 11:15. For all the girls, the biggest highlight at the beginning was putting on the outfit. Katie gets to be like every other girl. At their first recital, the director did an amazing job of not making the Ballerina Dreams class any different. She didn’t give a preamble to the class. It was just: “next up is Ballerina Dreams” and out they came in their walkers or with their volunteer. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. After the recital they had a waiting list of high school students wanting to volunteer.
Me: What have you heard from parents of other kids in the class?
Sarah Suggitt-Nixon: “I can’t believe my little girl with special needs is doing a ballet class like her sisters or friends.” One mom told me she had been looking for this kind of program for two years. One of the girls who started in November is now taking steps, where she wasn’t before ballet. They’re ordering her a walker to use in addition to her wheelchair.
Me: How have other parents and dancers responded?
Sarah Suggitt-Nixon: You can peek through the window at the class and a lot of people stop by to watch. I heard one teenager say to her mom: “This is the class I was telling you about that I want to volunteer in. When they get more dancers, I’m next on the list to volunteer.” For many of the student volunteers it’s the first time they’ve been involved with kids with special needs and it normalizes these kids for them. They’re not different or weird. One mother said her daughter who’s going to university is now interested in looking into occupational or physical therapy as a career after working with these kids. There haven’t been any negative reactions.
Me: What was the greatest challenge in starting the class?
Sarah Suggitt-Nixon: You know what, there wasn’t a big challenge! The studio is accessible and there are no stairs. I let families in the Bloorview School know about it, so we had dancers lined up and ready to go. Turning Pointe needed to schedule the time slot and teacher and get the volunteers. But I was very pleased at how receptive everyone was.
Ballerina Dreams was profiled in this Toronto Star article last weekend. Check out the online video. Photo above by Jamie MacDonald.