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Adaptive Dance at Montana Ballet Company

Providing meaningful access to the arts has always been at the forefront for Montana Ballet Company. While all of our various programs are special, the Adaptive Dance Program (ADP) is particularly near and dear to our hearts.

ADP was developed in 2016 to provide creative movement and introductory ballet instruction for children ages 5 to 12 with Down syndrome. Local physical therapist Sheri Simkins consulted, and Shira Greenburg of Keshet Dance Company was brought in to train the MBC staff on formulating adaptive classes for students of all ages, facing a range of physical and developmental challenges.

In 2017 I attended Boston Ballet’s Adaptive Dance training and became certified in teaching adaptive dance to children and adults with Down syndrome and on the spectrum. Now in my sixth year of teaching ADP at MBC, my goal is not to provide these kids with yet another form of therapy, but rather an outlet for expression, the chance to experience the art of dance and the opportunity to learn and grow with their peers…all with a very therapeutic outcome. –While I come to every class with a plan, often it goes out the window depending on the mood of the kids on any given day. A combination of structure and flexibility is the name of the game. Some of my students have been with me from the very beginning and watching the growth and progress over the years has been amazing.

For example, in the beginning one child would barely utter a word, participated only occasionally, and if I made direct eye contact once or twice a class, I considered it a success. Today I joke with her mom that she will take over my job soon as she has acquired the confidence, skills and apparent desire to run the class. She can name her favorite steps (in French) and often helps other students if they need it. Indeed, I learn just as much from these kids as I think they do from me. Another student began ADP in our first year, and after two years is now progressing successfully in our non-adaptive classes. While ADP is intended to provide students with instruction that more specifically meets their needs, sometimes those needs are better met in a more traditional ballet class. It has been immensely gratifying to watch her develop in her love of dance and ballet technique alongside her peers and audition and perform in MBC’s Nutcracker performances. I still remember her favorite “animal step” from the very first ADP classes and occasionally we’ll do it in her honor; while we miss her in ADP it’s wonderful to know she’s flourishing.

By nature, ADP classes benefit from having Teaching Assistants. While usually our older Academy students assist, this year I convinced my 14-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter to help. Initially they took turns, then they fought over who’s turn it was because they both loved it so much. Finally, I just brought them both. The best part of my week became watching their interactions: hugs from one student (my son was her favorite), teamwork (my daughter was able to coax attempts at steps that I wasn’t) and the friendships (favorites would change from week to week).

MBC’s Artistic and Executive Director, Elizabeth DeFanti, sums it up beautifully, “It has been a dream come true to have an Adaptive Dance Program at MBC and a true joy to witness our ADP students grow and flourish in Karen’s classes. Karen creates an atmosphere where dancers of all ages and abilities feel safe and supported enough to engage with her, our TAs and our beautiful art form in so many important ways.”

At the end of each year, we celebrate all of our Academy dancers at MBC’s Academy Showcase. In previous years, my assistants and I performed on stage with the ADP class. This year, through the confidence gained and bonds formed I was able to send them on stage on their own. There they were, my ADP kids and my own kids, and there was I, beaming from the wings.

This fall ADP classes will be held on Thursdays from 5:45-6:30 p.m. beginning September 8, 2022. A complimentary ADP class will also be offered as part of MBC’s Open House on September 1, from 4:45-5:15 p.m. For more information visit www.montanaballet.org.