SPAC and NYC Ballet Access Program Brings Dance Workshop to Differently Abled Dancers

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SARATOGA SPRINGS – “I like to dance!” exclaimed an excited eleven year old Lieith Bonsoy. She had traveled from Johnsonville, New York to The School of the Arts Saturday, July 17th, with her parents for a very special dance lesson offered by none other than the New York City Ballet.

Lieith was one of approximately 40 children dancing in Saratoga Springs Saturday morning. Invited by Saratoga Performing Arts Center‘s Education Director, Dennis Monesch, the young artists were offered a free lesson from the NYC Ballet’s Educational Access Program. The program is specifically designed for differently abled dancers to access a dance workshop on ballet. Monesch sent the invite through the Center for Disability Services, medical doctors and providers months ago and has gotten quite the broad response across the state.

“We traveled from Otego this morning, and are so excited by the music!” mother Ruth Modinger reported as she glided gracefully with her 22 year old daughter Marybeth across the gleaming hardwood floors. While daughter Marybeth is nonverbal, it was very clear she loved the music and was moving from the moment she entered the space.

The program captured the imagination of both the very young dancers and the more seasoned ones as the dancers were guided through a warm-up and then the music and storyline of “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Pre-setting the room about auditory changes was important, giving warnings of volume changes as well as tone changes, as well as controlling for sensory input that might disrupt the dancers’ ability to focus.

The dancers, just like young professionals, followed along through the lesson with varying interest levels. The leading dancers, Meaghan Dutton-O’Hara and Davide Riccardo from the NYC Ballet, reviewed the history of ballet, ways to move to express oneself, and even the importance of facial expression (although all wore masks for safety!). And while some children were shy, like 12 year old Anneka Williams from Scotia, all the children moved to the floor and joined in the fun once the music began.

Anneka was present with her mother and showed rapt attention when given the chance to touch the toe shoes. “They are hard!” she noted.

“Yes, that’s why the dancers are strong!” explained the workshop leader.

Some parents served as partners, but many stood back photographing their children enjoying their bodies, music and movement.

Not all children can access regular programming such as the dance workshop offered earlier this week at SPAC’s main stage. Physical challenges such as needing a chair, or sensory sensitivities to noise and light, for examples, make access challenging. But that does not translate to a lack of passion for the ballet, only a need for some gentle shifts in environment.

The ballet dancers who facilitated the program, Davide and Meaghan, scaffolded the lessons for different ability levels. Often one dancer was in a chair while the other was standing; this reflected modifications as a norm, and rather than aiming for perfection, the aim was clearly toward joy.

The lesson was planned and very structured to meet the needs of differently abled dancers with respect. There was no talking down to the children, but instead directions given in language that was accessible and goals that were achievable for all. The program is part of a year long Access Educational program offered in NYC. It was originally designed in response to a parent who voiced a desire for her child with cerebral palsy to participate in their workshops, and continues to be offered in the city.

“This is our first time offering in person activities since the pandemic, though,” Meaghan joyfully added. She voiced missing the time dancing with the children.

“I haven’t done this in years in front of strangers!” squealed Lieith Bonsoy as she moved through the space with the dancers, the happiness clear across every fiber of her being. Her parents beamed with pride as did the many parents and grandparents scattered around the room photographing the event.

Everyone can dance, after all. Even when one’s body moves differently, everyone can enjoy dancing. This special program comes once a year to SPAC, who is proudly hosting the NYC Ballet this week.

Photo Gallery by Jim Gilbert

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