SAAC Communications Intern
Have you ever wondered about the exclusivity of some art? How do people with disabilities engage in performance arts? When is the last time you watched someone with Down Syndrome or paralysis dance? The Academy of Competitive and Performing Arts in Starkville (ACPA) is trying to break that boundary. Its “Let’s All Dance Class” is offered to children with various disabilities. This class brings awareness to disabilities through the arts.
Dance can seem restrictive if you don’t have the “right” body, mindset, etc., but ACPA is fighting that social standard. Arts shouldn’t be limited to a select few, but can and should be enjoyed by all.
Kaitlyn May, Educational Psychology PhD candidate at the University of Alabama, has worked with children for two years and found that dance can have a dramatic, positive impact on individuals with disabilities. Kaitlyn shared her experience with us, both over the telephone and email.
What struggles do you face in teaching the arts with these students?
Individualizing instruction to cater the needs of each student is difficult in any classroom, but the difficulty is heightened in a classroom like Let’s All Dance where students show immense diversity in physical and cognitive abilities. I was fortunate to have the support of multiple faculty members in the Counseling, Educational Psychology, and Foundations department at MSU.
What are some of the benefits you’ve seen your students gain?
These really give me so much excitement for the development of programs like Let’s All Dance! My students participate in something they had never experienced. For both parents and students, it was a “normal” childhood experience in the midst of a week crammed with school, appointments, and physical therapy.
Great, specific things happen, too! One predominantly nonverbal student began speaking the names for movements as she did them. I did associated words with movements as I taught, and it was wonderful to see that incidental acquisition of vocabulary.
Another child began my class with a walker. Her mother asked that we challenge her daughter to rely less on the walker and more on her canes. She continually progressed, transitioning from the walker, to two canes, to one cane, and eventually to holding the hand of a teacher. One day in class she dropped her canes and continued running, unassisted. Everyone in the class exploded in excitement!
Change happened even outside the classroom. In a community as small as Starkville, you often run into the same people; children I taught at church on Sundays would often see me teaching Let’s All Dance when they came to ACPA for their own classes. Eventually, on Sundays, a few kids began asking questions about the Let’s All Dance program. These conversations slowly transformed their perception of visible handicaps, what it means to be able-bodied, and what an individual with any impairment is capable of. Afterwards, I saw them take initiative to include and assist other children with special needs in our church class. They asked questions, adjusted their perceptions, and corrected their actions. This is where I think the grown-ups need to take notes:children asked bold questions and entirely adjusted their mindset accordingly!
It’s great that you are helping spread the arts to EVERYONE, arts shouldn’t be exclusive. Do you feel the community really utilizes it?
Unfortunately, no. One thing voiced most often by my Let’s All Dance parents is a lack of opportunities for children with special needs. This isn’t unique to Starkville: I’ve heard similar feedback from families that I worked with in Houston, Texas. Generally, there is a lack of extracurricular opportunities for children with special needs. The arts, in particular, provide a means of expression and empowerment. All children need those two things, but they are particularly rare and powerful for children with special needs who often feel repeatedly judged, put-down, or dependent on others. I hope to see more arts programs opened to children with special needs and further growth of extracurricular opportunities to this segment of society overall.
How do you think dance has transformed some of your students into students of the arts?
One of my favorite quotes about the arts is “the greatness of art is not to find what is common, but what is unique.” My students in Let’s All Dance embodied that. Dance gave them a means to use their individualities for greatness. For example, one student with spina bifida and minimal movement in her legs would find the most intriguing ways of moving her body. She constantly had me doing double-takes! I found myself trying to employ this idea while choreographing for my general education classes, trying to dissolve my established ideas of how the body moves in favor of novel motions or movement in less-used portions of the body. In that sense, these students embody the arts! To me, this is what art is about: challenging your audience’s views and ideas, being able to bend things that most people see as a straight line.
Do you feel that dance has really let these kids express themselves in ways that people wouldn’t expect children with disabilities to?
Yes. This is another problem I see in us grown-ups: sometimes our preconceived notions limit the kids we interact with. If we expect kids to “wow” us and provide them the environment, encouragement, support, and resources to excel, then they will outstand us with their accomplishments. Let’s All Dance is a testament to the need for a change in societal perception of individuals with disabilities. We all have something to offer this world and individuals with disabilities are no exception.
What advice could you give to parents out there who have children with disabilities but want them to partake in dance, or any form of the arts for that matter?
Make members of your community with teachable skills, like dance, aware of the lack of opportunities for children with special needs. Most people are unaware of the challenges and lack of opportunities individuals with special needs face until someone in their direct circle faces these challenges. Start that dialogue with those around you who are not a part of the special needs community. My hope is that more performing arts programs for children with special needs will develop.
Arts truly offers something for everyone, regardless of ability. Want to help SAAC connect and build a creative community through the arts?
Contact us. Let us know what ideas you have.
Interested in Let’s All Dance? Contact ACPA here. They’d love to hear from you.