The Virginia Regional Ballet is working to become more inclusive with its latest endeavor. The school’s new adaptive dance classes, designed for kids with special needs including autism and physical disabilities, launch Sept. 10.
“I’m so excited about this program,” said Adelle Carpenter, VRB’s studio director. “In the past, we’ve always had an inclusive policy. We feel like every child should have an opportunity to dance.”
But she acknowledged the limitations of the standard programming, in which students with special needs would struggle to keep up with the rest of their class.
“They would end up quitting and it just made me really sad,” Carpenter said. “We decided that they needed their own class. We wanted to make sure that we did it properly.”
A $2,500 Williamsburg Community Foundation grant helped make the program a reality, alongside support from the Hampton Roads Community Foundation. In July, Carpenter and two other instructors, William Walker and Cathy Leach, traveled to Boston Ballet School for a training program and certification in its established adaptive dance program.
Walker said that while there, they listened to kids share testimonies about how the program made them feel safe, supported and welcome. The Boston school’s philosophy proved to him that they were onto something.
“We are trying to foster a place where they can come and feel safe and feel loved and honored for who they are,” Walker said.
The new classes include a nurse, physical therapist and volunteers accompanying the instructors. Class sizes are smaller to provide more one-on-one time.
For students, the new classes will have accommodating sensory components such as bean bags and squishy toys that help keep them engaged and encourage awareness of different part of their bodies. For those with physical disabilities, special exercises allow the flexibility of using chairs or the floor for added support.
Carpenter said dancing can offer confidence, encourage healthy living and inspire perseverance for students in the new classes.
“We can give them the space to be themselves and give the parents a break,” Carpenter said. “Having that outlet is just great for the brain. It’s great for the body. It just gives them that experience that they wouldn’t normally get.”
For the larger community, Walker sees a chance to inspire awareness, empathy and the idea that “special needs” needn’t carry a negative connotation.
“They’re human beings and they’re maneuvering themselves through this world the best they can," he said.
Yes, they made need some extra assistance.
"But you are able to do this and you are worthy to do this."
Registration is $40 for the first dancer and $20 for additional dancers, with monthly tuition calculated based on hours per family per week. Adaptive learning classes start Sept. 10 for ages 7-16. For more information and to register, visit dancevrb.com.
Birkenmeyer can be reached by email at email@example.com, by phone at 757-790-3029 or on Twitter @sethbirkenmeyer.