Children and teens with Down syndrome are learning the discipline of ballet through a unique program sponsored by Arizona Ballet.
Since 2014, Arizona Ballet’s Adaptive Dance for Down Syndrome Program has been headed by instructor Kay Price.
In collaboration with a physical therapist, Price first created an outline on how the classes were going to be adapted and carried out and within months had the program up and running.
“These children don’t come with any agendas. They are so full of joy and they are so honest, they are so pure,” said Price. “To watch the enthusiasm and then to watch the growth when they achieve something new is what I enjoy the most.”
The program consists of three sessions over the year and three levels: foundation one, foundation two and adaptive classical. Each level offers different dynamics that will change as the student progresses.
Foundation one consists of a pre-ballet instruction where a bit of traditional ballet in the bars is taught. Creative movement is also an important element of this level.
To reinforce it, games are played during class accompanying them with Disney music. This level also includes learning a little bit about human anatomy and how it connects with the discipline of ballet.
Parents as well as Ballet Arizona School students help with this phase of the program.
For foundation two, parental assistance is not required but one student assistant is assigned for every three Down syndrome participants, who are introduced to more advanced steps, positions and poses.
Once the students acquire a sense of self-control, maturity and can focus without an assistant next to them, they can progress into the adaptive classical level, which launched in 2018.
This level is structured the same way as traditional ballet classes held at the studio. The adaptive classical level currently has five students who have participated in two of the company’s productions.
Samantha Derivan, 17, of Gilbert, has been one of the outstanding students who joined the program when it first launched. Her growth and development as a dancer have now brought her to be part of the adaptive classical level.
In the past, Samantha had the opportunity of auditioning for the Nutcracker where she ended up getting a main character role and doing five performances of the production.
Despite a vision impediment, Samantha was able to perform on stage by learning where the girl in front and behind her was. She was also capable of dancing wearing a huge angel gown and wings the following year.
“She would not have been able to do it if Ms. Kay and the staff behind the scenes hadn’t been so sweet with her,” said Therese Derivan, Samantha’s mother.
“They took extra time talking to her about putting her costume on because this is not normal clothes, they have a different feeling on your body and they are heavy, just strange for somebody with a disability,” Therese said.
Since day one at the studio, Samantha fell in love with ballet and continues to look forward to her lessons.
Her mother said that she knows ballet makes her daughter happy because every Saturday morning, Samantha gets ready by herself with excitement.
She gets dressed in her uniform, puts her hair up in a bun, grabs her Gatorade bottle, practices the routine or steps that Price taught her the class prior – and waits for her remote class to start.
“I am grateful that Ballet Arizona saw this need, saw the value in these kids and are including them in the ballet world,” said Therese.
The Adaptive Dance for Down Syndrome is part of Arizona Ballet’s community engagement programming.
The studio not only offers adaptive instruction to the Down syndrome community but to students with other disabilities, such as autism, and other physical challenges like Parkinson’s.
Ballet Arizona continues to look forward to building inclusivity inside their company just as they have done until today and offer more programs for students with different needs.
“As far as what the program looks moving forward, we’re always trying to expand what we can do and expand the people that we serve,” said Alexandra Papazian, manager of community engagement at Ballet Arizona. “We really want them to feel that they are part of Ballet Arizona and not just a separate program.”