Dance class welcomes kids of all abilities

Sacred Heart School for the Arts dance instructor Amanda Rollins demonstrated the first position to Silas Cherry, left, and Eleanor Hartlage in a ballet class Sept. 19. Rollins’ class is designed for all aspiring dancers. (Record Photo by Ruby Thomas)

By Ruby Thomas, Record Staff Writer

When Amanda Rollins was a little girl, the dance studio was the safe place that could turn any bad day into a good one. As a dance instructor at Sacred Heart School for the Arts, she has set out to create a similar space for young dancers of all abilities.

Sacred Heart School for the Arts started offering beginning ballet I, II and III classes to students of all abilities in August. Four students with special needs, including Down syndrome and mobility impairments, have enrolled in the classes so far, said Rollins.

During an interview in late September, Rollins said the special classes were a dream of hers. Ten months ago her daughter was born with Down syndrome. Her “heart and priorities” have changed, she said.

Rollins said she wants a place for her daughter to go besides therapy. When she was a little girl, Rollins said the studio where her mother taught dance was her “safe place.”

“It didn’t matter what was going on, it was a place to go after school,” she said. She wanted a similar experience for her daughter and thought “there had to be other moms who were stressing, too.”

Rollins — who danced professionally and has taught ballet for a number of years — said she started researching and came across an adaptive dance program offered by the Boston Ballet.

In July she took a two-day adaptive dance-teacher training workshop led by professionals from Boston Children’s Hospital and the Boston Ballet. She also had the opportunity to meet with families and special-needs students involved in adaptive classes.

She returned with the confidence to start SHSA’s new ballet classes, she said.

“It’s incredibly important” for special-needs children to experience art along with their typical-needs peers, said Rollins. Integrating special and typical-needs children is “vitally important in the arts, because it’s the great equalizer. It’s open to interpretation, but there’s a universal experience,” she added.

Dance classes create a physical and social outlet and help children build confidence and self-esteem, said Rollins. It also encourages them to take turns, listen and follow directions — skills that everyone needs regardless of ability, she added.

Rollins said she feels like there are many discussions about “various ‘isms,’ but not enough discussion on what she referred to as “able-ism,” the discrimination of individuals with disabilities. “The more we can do to bring that into the forefront with all the other ‘isms’ is vitally important, especially for a population that may not be able to advocate for themselves,” said Rollins.

SHSA will present a “sensory-friendly” performance of the Nutcracker Ballet in December, said Rollins. This performance will be shorter and will not include scenes that might act as a trigger for individuals with sensory-processing issues, she said. During this special performance, the lights will remain on in the theater and attendants will be free to move around.

For more information on this and other performances, visit the Sacred Heart School for the Arts section of www.shslou.org.

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