Saturday, May 13, 2006

Adaptive ballet

I'm pretty familiar with adaptive sports, but not with adaptive ballet. The world of ballet has always seemed fundamentally harsh and cruel -- no place for an "imperfect" child. In this case a therapist found a way around the cruelty of the ballet ...
Given a Chance to Be Little Ballerinas, and Smiling Right Down to Their Toes - New York Times By COREY KILGANNON

With its practice bar, mirrored walls and lush orchestral music, the small dance studio in Bayside, Queens, seems like countless other ballet schools that nurture the dreams of little girls.

... this studio holds one special class a week for dancers whose movements do not exactly exhibit the refined control of a prima ballerina. There are no lithe leaps, perfect pirouettes or pointed toes here. Most girls cannot walk or stand, much less make a shallow curtsy. Their crutches and walkers lie nearby and their customized ballet slippers are stretched over leg braces.

The eight little ballet students, who have cerebral palsy and other debilitating physical conditions, are assisted in class by teenage volunteers with strong healthy bodies and infinite patience. The teacher is Joann Ferrara, a physical therapist who owns and runs Associated Therapies, where most of the girls go for treatment.

... "Every little girl wants to be a ballerina, and my daughter wanted to know why she couldn't," said Maria Siaba, whose daughter Veronica, 7, is in the class. "I would bring her into a ballet school and they said, 'We can't accommodate her.' Outside, I'd have to explain to her that she couldn't do what all the other girls are doing."

For an hour a week, Veronica and seven other girls from Queens escape a world plagued by awkward physical motion and enter a room where elegant music is played and they get a taste of movement that is graceful, smooth, supple and refined. Ms. Ferrara teaches only the basics of ballet. The girls do not perform full pliƩs or pirouettes, and they are lifted for leaps...

... "I just want them to feel the sheer joy of moving and to be proud of themselves," Ms. Ferrara said. She began the dance class three years ago after hearing repeated laments from the families of girls she treated. "The parents all said their daughters wanted to take ballet like all the other girls, but no ballet schools would accept them," she said.

She recruited a group of teenagers to assist the dancers and paired them up. Most pairs have been together ever since....

.... The girls had their annual recital last Sunday in the auditorium of the Mary Louis Academy in Jamaica Estates. Backstage, assistants were pulling ballet slippers over the bulky plastic sheathing and hinges of leg braces, and helping the girls put on white tights and pink tutus. Pink fuzzy tiaras were adjusted and pink tambourines and fairy wands were distributed. The dancers were bursting with excitement as they checked their makeup and hair in the mirror.

Monica resolved that during the recital she would try to stand for the first time in front of her dad, John Chaffardet, who was in the audience.

Veronica sat in the lap of her helper, Christina Arfsten, 16, of Flushing, and said her favorite ballet was "Swan Lake" because "it's about a girl who works very hard and never, ever gives up."

The audience included some of Ms. Ferrara's other patients, who watched proudly and shed tears of pride, not pity. For the finale, "When You Wish Upon a Star," the dancers held shiny paper stars. When the music stopped, Jessica held hers aloft and yelled, "Yea, we did it."

The audience bathed the girls in cheers as Ms. Ferrara handed each ballerina a red rose. Monica held her rose in one hand and used the other to steady herself with her ribbon-wrapped cane. Heather gently released her and beamed as she stood by herself, held up by applause and her father's quivering smile.
If you're not teary eyed at this point, you have a heart of stone.

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