Monday, April 26, 2010

Virginia children with Down syndrome learn dance in adaptive ballet class

From The Virginian-Pilot:

It's early on a Saturday morning when the dancers arrive with gusto at a downtown Norfolk studio.

A boy twirls himself within a black curtain that hangs against a mirrored wall. Another student runs off in search of drums. Still another grabs the hands of other dancers to pull them into class.

Their ballet shoes carry reminders - red tape on the right foot, blue on the left.

It's 8 a.m., and in this room, the goal is not exact synchronicity, or the perfect plié.

Rather, it's catching the tide of dance:

The music.

The rhythm.

The movement.

The dancers all have Down syndrome - a genetic condition that causes learning delays - and the idea is to present the joys of movement in a way that also will be therapeutic:

Ballet steps that invite coordination. Promenades that help with balance. Camaraderie that fosters confidence.

The lessons to be learned during the six-week Adaptive Dance Class, which recently wrapped up its first session, extend to both students and teachers.

"I came in with five plans, and when one didn't work, we'd go to the next," says Todd Rosenlieb, the dance instructor the children gravitated around each Saturday. "We found out a circle works better than a line. Rhythm works. Stickers on the shoes. The more we gave them a routine, the more confident they were to move within those boundaries."

And when all else fails, there's music, rhythm and the very space where dance unfolds to carry the day.

Six-year-old Gus Zaletski (pictured) spends his first dance lesson checking out the studio. He wanders over to the ballet bars and hangs off them. He sprawls on the shiny, smooth wooden floor. He presses his cheek to the mirrored wall.

Meanwhile, the other nine dancers, ranging in age from 5 to 19, drift in. Rosenlieb gathers the children together in a circle of chairs to introduce them to the other teachers.

"This is Miss Samantha; we are going to call her Sam. This is Miss Catherine. And Miss Emily. We are here to turn you into beautiful dancers. The next person I want you to meet is Greg. He plays the drum, and that will give us the music to dance to."

He turns to Greg Lee, who sits against the wall amid a collection of drums. Lee uses his fingers and palms to send a relaxing, low, rhythmic pulse throughout the studio.

"Dancers, do you hear something? Willette, do you hear something? Is that music? Arms out to the side. Samantha, arms out."

"I got it!" 7-year-old Samantha Sanchez says.

"Everyone bring your arms up, and come down, and arms go up, and arms go down," Rosenlieb says.

Gus is entranced by Lee. The boy runs to his side and slides his hand over the drums, feeling the vibration.

His parents, Beth and Roy Zaletski of Norfolk, fight the good fight. He's in a regular class at school, even if it means taking kindergarten twice. They encourage him to play with neighborhood friends, knowing this is the world he will live in.

But once in a while, it's good for Gus to be among other children like him, to see not just the similarities but the differences.

"It's a big component of who he is," Beth says. "It's not who he is, but it's a component. His world is mixed."

His grandmother, Melissa Zaletski, was reading People magazine last spring when she saw an article about a Boston Ballet program that paired the talents of the company's dancers with physical therapists from a children's hospital. She thought to herself, "Why can't we do that here?"

She contacted the program coordinator, set up meetings with physical therapists at Children's Hospital of The King's Daughters, reached out to Rosenlieb and secured funding from the Down Syndrome Association of Hampton Roads.

Gus dips in and out of the circle of activity, occasionally finding his way to the center of attention by climbing into the lap of Rosenlieb, who doesn't miss a beat.

"Today we did very well," Rosenlieb tells the class at the end of the hour. "We listened to music, we learned to march in rhythm, we learned to put on our ballet slippers. At the end of every class, we stand up and bow to each other and our friends.

"Everyone step to the side of your chair, bend at the waist and blow a kiss."

It's a learning experience for the 43-year-old Rosenlieb, who began his professional career in New York City in the early 1990s and formed his own dance troupe in Norfolk in 2004. He's director of the TRDance Center on Granby Street, where the students gather.

He once coached ballet great Mikhail Baryshnikov. He has taught students at the Governor's School for the Arts and Tidewater Community College. He has choreographed performances for the Virginia Arts Festival and the Richmond Ballet.

He has never taught a class solely with special-needs children. But just like any class, he found you play it by ear, watching and listening and taking cues from your students.

"At first I thought the mirrors would be a distraction, so we pulled the black curtains across them. But they seemed drawn to the mirrors. So leave them open. Let it be a dance studio; they deserve it."

Dancing "en pointe" - on the tips of the toes - may be too much, but jumping brings joy. A pas de deux, or dance for two, every session is a chance for each child to perform with Rosenlieb and be the featured dancer. Some respond to the dance, pure and simple. Others like his praise. Others like praising him.

"Thank you, Todd," 9-year-old Thomas Chaney says several times a session.

Emily Mattison, a CHKD physical therapist, comes to the classes to give suggestions. Red tape on the right foot might help the children remember that red is for right, for instance. And adhering to a routine would be better than trying something different every class. For some, just sitting quietly in a chair would be a worthy goal, while others could manage the various ballet positions.

And don't expect everyone to learn at the same time.

"Very nicely done," Rosenlieb says during a session midway through the course. "Do you remember first position from last week? Good, Samantha."

Willette Sawyer, at 19 the oldest dancer here, holds her tongue just so as she concentrates. She watches Rosenlieb's every move, even as other children drift in and out of the circle.

"Open your toes to first position. Stand tall with your feet together. First position. Can we go to our tippy toes and put them down? There's our Willette. Now back to first position. Arms forward. Standing tall, lift your spine."

Out in the hallway, Willette's parents watch their daughter through a viewing window.

"If she sees it one time, she will try to model that," Martha Sawyer says.

"She loves movement," William Sawyer adds. "It's part of her. When she hears the music, it motivates her."

It's a 45-minute drive for the Sawyers to get here from Camden, N.C. Martha gets up at 5 a.m. to help Willette fix her hair. In June, Willette will graduate from Camden High School, where she's a cheerleader and a choir member. The Sawyers see this class as another part of her network.

Many of the younger children may not understand Down syndrome, in which an extra chromosome gives them distinctive features and a different developmental pace. But Willette is of an age of awareness.

"She understands she has something a little different," Martha says. "She'll see someone else with Down syndrome and say, 'Mommy, he has the chromosomes like me.' "

Some of the parents found out their children had Down syndrome during testing while they were pregnant, others not until their children were born. Some wonder whether prenatal genetic testing - which allows parents to terminate pregnancies - will lead to a smaller community.

It's a balancing act for many of the parents, mainstreaming their children into settings with the nondisabled but also letting their kids delve into groups that give them the chance to learn at a different pace, in a different manner. And a place to look around and see others like themselves.

Six-year-old Rachel Schroeder has had two years of regular dance classes, but she's also part of a special-needs cheerleading squad. This class builds on what she learned in those classes. Here there's no pressure to sit still, stay in line, point the toe in just the right way. Occasionally, a teacher will pick up a child to dance with, but if the student wants to sit one out, that's OK, too.

"It's a relief to put your child in a class like this that he will just enjoy," Beth Zaletski says.

For Samantha, it's a chance to imagine herself on a favorite TV show.

"She loves watching 'Dancing with the Stars,' " says her mother, Joanna Sanchez. "So when this came up, I knew she would love it. She teaches you a lot. They'll teach you more than you teach them."

At the final class, Willette pulls several of her friends into the studio by their hands. At 8 a.m., the music begins, and the children sit in their chairs.

"Here we go, everybody, sitting up tall," Rosenlieb says. "Both feet on the floor, getting ready for our warm-up. Left foot out, circle the ankle. Other leg, everyone knows how to point and flex their foot."

Lee's drum rhythms provide a soothing yet energizing tide of sound. He usually performs music late the night before, so getting up this early is a challenge. But it's one he appreciates.

"It confirms to me what I suspected about the power of rhythm and movement and how it's good holistically for people, even more so for people with some kind of need. Rhythm brings everything into sync. It's like an ever-flowing stream once you tap into it."

At home, Gus will tap his hands on the table like the drummer. Willette will call her older sisters and say, "I danced today." And Samantha will demonstrate what she has learned for her parents and younger sister.

"After she takes a bath, she'll dance like a ballerina," Joanna says.

Access and introduction, Rosenlieb finds at the end of the six weeks, have a power beyond perfection and discipline, so much so he plans another class for the summer: "The music and the movement allow them to express themselves in a way they might feel freer about. They're in this safe zone, and they can be who they are."

Not everyone participates at once, but enough do that lessons begin to gel.

"Hands on our hips, together we are going to plié," Rosenlieb says. "Bend and straighten, bend and straighten. Now up to the toes, down to the heels. First position. Arms down on our hips, and down, two, three."

"You guys have become very good dancers," Rosenlieb says at the hour's end. "Everyone say, 'I am a dancer.' "

"I am a dancer," they sing out.

"One more time, 'I am a dancer.' "

"I am a dancer!"

"That is exactly right."