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Published: Saturday, 11/28/2009

Kids with Down syndrome stretch their abilities in Toledo Ballet's program

BY ANN WEBER
BLADE STAFF WRITER

The sheer joy of moving to music is splashed across the faces of the children in Ann Heckler's Saturday afternoon dance class at the Toledo Ballet.

The joy is what matters - not dance steps or form, discipline or posture. Neither Mrs. Heckler nor her assistants seem miffed, or surprised, when a boy sprawls on the floor amid a swirl of other dancers because he's tired, or when a little girl crawls under a table, pulling a chair in behind her.

Both soon rejoin the action.

"It's a real play-it-by-ear group," says Mrs. Heckler of these students, the first to enroll in the ballet school's adaptive dance program for children with Down syndrome. Offered for the first time this fall and modeled on a program that was started in 2002 by the Boston Ballet and the Department of Physical Therapy at Children's Hospital in Boston, the Toledo Ballet class aims for improvement in the children's social and physical skills and emotional well-being.

But for a child such as 9 -year-old Caitlin McFerron of Sylvania, who spends so much time in therapeutic activities every week, it's just a lark.

"She really glows when I say it's time for dance," says her mother, Paula McFerron. "This is just for her, just for fun."

It's special for parents, too, points out Lisa Burke of Holland. Her daughter Kara, 6, is in the Saturday class.

"It's great to come in here, to be part of something that's not separate or apart," she says. It's a place where Kara can pursue her interests and develop talents in the same way as a child who doesn't have special needs.

"She loves it - the music, the dance... It's great to have people who welcome that," Mrs. Burke says.

Reaching out

The new program is part of the ballet's community outreach efforts aimed at making dance accessible to as many people as possible, says Mari Davies, Toledo Ballet executive director. "We have a responsibility to all of the kids in our community," she asserts.

Mrs. Davies also sees educational value for the school's classical ballet students, "to interface with these special children, to see what they're capable of."

The current Saturday class, for children ages 7 to 12, has four students. A class for children age 13 and older, held Wednesday evenings, has three. Enrollment in each class will be capped at six because of the children's needs for constant monitoring, redirection, and, in some cases, physical assistance.

The cost of the 18-week session is $275, the same as the school's other classes.

Mrs. Heckler says she had wanted to teach adaptive dance for a long time, "but I never felt ready."

The time came last summer, when she and her family traveled to Boston. During their stay, Mrs. Heckler contacted the Boston Ballet for information about its adaptive dance program. They welcomed her, explained their program, gave her a copy of their curriculum guide, and showed her DVDs of classes, because the school was not in session at that time.

After returning to Toledo, she discussed the idea with Mrs. Davies and Geneva Rodgers, a retired registered nurse who is a Toledo Ballet student and also participates in a water aerobics class that Mrs. Heckler - a yoga and fitness instructor as well as ballet teacher - conducts at Wildwood Athletic Club for people with arthritis.

Mrs. Rodgers turned to her contacts at the University of Toledo's medical school, the former Medical College of Ohio, for their thoughts about creating the classes and measuring student progress, and she has continued to look for other ways to involve faculty and students from the Health Science Campus in the program.

"One thing that's really important about this program is that it's completely legitimized with the support of the medical college," says Mrs. Davies. "We're not just winging this. This is extremely scientific."

Benefits abound

Mrs. Heckler says the classes are similar to the ballet school's creative movement classes for younger children.

In one exercise, the Saturday adaptive dance students walk with slow, quiet steps or fast, loud steps as cued by one of the children who drums on a small set of bongos. In another, each waves a bright scarf while standing still or moving about the room.

The children might be asked to pretend they're the sun, rain, or growing flowers, or to imitate a step that Mrs. Heckler does, or to make up one of their own.

The benefits of such exercises include developing body awareness and strengthening muscle tone, Mrs. Heckler explains.

Their progress is measured in three categories - social skills, emotional well-being, and motor skills and technique - at the beginning of each 18-week session, mid-point, and end.

Social skills include interactions with classmates and following directions. In the category of emotional well-being are self-confidence and ability to focus. The largest category, motor skills and technique, includes knowing right from left, separating upper and lower body movements, starting and stopping movement on cue, demonstrating balance and coordination, and developing movements and variations of their own.

The Boston Ballet has seen that kind of growth in children who participate in its adaptive dance classes, says founder Mickey Cassella in a telephone interview. Ms. Cassella is director of the Department of Physical Therapy and Occupational Therapy Services at Children's Hospital, Boston and director of physical therapy services for the Boston Ballet and its Center for Dance Education.

Those aren't the objectives of the Boston program, however. The mission statement says its goal "is to provide a positive, creative, and fun-filled experience for children with Down syndrome, by enriching their lives with challenging movements, rhythmical music, deep friendships, and a sense of personal accomplishment."

"I did not want this to be another therapy program," Ms. Cassella says. "Most of our children have had therapy all of their lives. I just want them to come to Boston Ballet like all other children and participate in the class and have lots of fun."

Parents are allies

Clearly, it's fun for Mrs. Heckler's adaptive dance students. And just as clearly, it's a challenge for the teacher and her assistants to keep the unpredictable young dancers focused and participating appropriately.

Having a strong working relationship with their parents is essential, Mrs. Heckler points out.

Most of them stay at the ballet school during the class or leave a number where they can be reached. Mrs. Heckler talks to parents before class - so she's prepared if a child is having a bad day - and again after class to let them know how their child did.

Parents also are allies in helping her deal with behavior issues.

In the beginning, one child repeatedly turned off the lights in the studio. Another constantly ran out of the room. Although Mrs. Heckler says she's usually able to follow her lesson plan for the older children, she finds she has to adjust to the younger kids.

She says she has seen progress in the students, although she admits that "There are weeks when I think, 'oh my goodness, are they receiving from this what I want them to receive?'"

Then her spirits will be lifted by a parent who tells her how much their child loves the class.

"She can't wait to come," says Karol Lynn Young of Sylvania who has arrived with her 7-year-old daughter, Karis, for the Saturday class.

For 10-year-old Tyrus Carroll of Rossford, it offers exercise and enrichment, says his stepfather, John Doering.

"We believe all kids should be exposed to as many experiences as possible," he adds.

Mrs. Davies, the ballet's executive director, agrees. The former educator says that giving children a variety of ways to express themselves contributes to their development as healthy individuals.

And if children - or adults - are exploring expression through ballet for the first time, so much the better.

"I love watching the outside world come into our world," she says.

Contact Ann Weber at: aweber@theblade.com

or 419-724-6126.



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