Defying Gravity: Young Children with Cerebral Palsy Have a Chance to Dance
Two young girls in their ballet dresses
This is the time of year when many parents, grandparents, siblings, and other family members flock to dance halls and theaters across the country to watch their young progeny take part in their very first dance recitals. It’s an historic event for many family members, who get to witness for the first time in their child’s life a performance on the big stage. The children are bundles of energy, displaying their brightly colored costumes in a way that reminds one of a beautiful field of wildflowers gently swayed by a light wind that moves them gracefully from across the earth.
I have been fortunate to be part of this wonderful event for the last 17 years, having served as door manager for my wife’s annual recital. I have always felt an amazing sense of joy and excitement being around 130 bundles of energy. In a strange way, it has reminded me of my own childhood, where dance costumes and toe slippers were supplanted with sneakers and cut up shorts as we "danced" on our own stage playing city games amidst the shadows of tall buildings and rows of parked cars. There was nothing more gratifying than 'performing' in front of an audience of tenants who peered out of windows watching us play stickball and stoop ball.
What adds to the excitement of dance recitals is the combination of high levels of kinetic energy in the presence of friends and family members who are there to support their loved ones. But what was truly amazing about this year’s recital was that on the day before the annual event, The New York Times ran a front-page article titled, "Given a Chance to Be Little Ballerinas, and Smiling Right Down to Their Toes." The story was about a few young girls with cerebral palsy finding their way onto the stage for their first dance recital in New York City. And what a story it was.
Joann Ferrara, a physical therapist from Bayside, Queens, had the wisdom and wherewithal to start the ballet class for eight tiny ballerinas with cerebral palsy. As one parent noted, "Every little girl wants to be a ballerina and my daughter wanted to know why she couldn’t. 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." But Joann Ferrara wasn’t going to let societal pressures and norms stop her from starting a class that is tailored to the level of these beautiful ballerinas with glistening costumes and the will and desire to dance. Ms. Ferrara started the program after hearing repeatedly from several of her clients’ parents that they wanted their children to take ballet classes but that no school would accept them. It’s a sad commentary when teachers who are responsible for building grace and character in every child, make the decision on ‘who’s in’ and ‘who’s out.’
Ms. Ferrara has adapted her ballet class to the individual level of each child, just the way it should be for any type of movement-related class. No two children are motorically alike and what works for one doesn’t always work for the other. The girls skip the plies and pirouettes and are lifted for leaps. Parents sit on the sidelines with glowing hearts. Yes, it can be an inclusive world, even in dance, but only when teachers begin to see the grace and beauty in every child. Ms. Ferrara’s dance program should be a testimonial to every dance teacher in America that all it takes is a little creativity — something that dance teachers are supposedly noted for.