The Therapeutic Art of Ballet for All Kids
Art therapy takes on dance using innovative methods to help children with autism.
Images courtesy Rebecca Elbogen
With raised awareness, more and more styles of therapy are being introduced to help people with developmental and behavioral disorders. Ballet for All Kids, in particular, uses the classical art form of ballet as art therapy for children “regardless of their abilities or disabilities.” It is a unique studio that offers ballet classes for children with anxiety disorders, behavioral issues, those within the autism spectrum, as well as blind, deaf, non-ambulatory, and neurotypical children.
The program employs the Schlachte Method, which uses visual, auditory, and vestibular learning in order to teach “new skills and enhance each child’s personal sense of accomplishment.” This method employs DVDs, singing, and full-body movement (including facial expressions) to bring out the natural abilities of every child and teach spatial awareness and emotional intelligence through ballet classes. The Schlachte Method plays on the individuality of every student and promises to “work with each child individually to assist them in reaching their goals.”
Ballet For All Kids is an opportunity for children to feel the same benefits of “self-confidence, friendships, self-discipline, and the joy of movement” that come from taking traditional ballet classes. The Creators Project spoke to the New York representative of Ballet for All Kids, Rebecca Elbogen:
The Creators Project: When did you first get involved with working with autistic children?
Rebecca Elbogen: I started volunteering with the non-profit studio Ballet For All Kids back home in Los Angeles when I was in high school. Because I practically lived at my dance studio, I noticed a unique class being held there on Sundays. I was really intrigued by how the class was run and after researching a bit more, discovered how wonderful the mission was—to teach ballet to all kids regardless of ability or disability. So I started working as a one-on-one assistant with many of the students. Just a few classes in, I noticed how the kids were progressing in ways I would have never predicted. I was hooked. It was more about just working with kids rather than working with their diagnosis. In fact, I didn’t know too much about autism until well after I started volunteering.
Why did you decide to make it personal?
It’s hard not to get attached when you dance with a kid every week and see both the success and the setbacks. I always knew I wanted to work with children but was a bit surprised at how naturally I clicked with Ballet For All Kids. I found comfort and freedom in dance and was therefore excited about sharing that same love with children who are often overlooked in other settings. In addition, Bonnie Schlachte, the founder and director, was inspirational in every sense of the word. Observing her patience and passion sparked my own dedication to the program. I began subbing a class here and there, eventually got certified to teach, taught for a full summer, and finally decided to bring the method with me to New York when I moved here for school. It was hard saying goodbye to a warm community of students, parents, and volunteers, so I knew I had to continue teaching. Ballet For All Kids even stimulated my academic career. I’m now studying developmental psychology at NYU and specializing in autism research.
Ballet is foundational in many ways for the body and the mind. There are obvious physical benefits such as balance, strength, stamina, and flexibility. Ballet class is highly effective at teaching discipline in general. In order to improve, you must persevere (and perspire). Although ballet may seem rigid sometimes, there is still space for creativity and imagination. Each body moves in a unique way, bringing art to the structure. Above all, dance is a form of expression. It’s an alternative type of communication that can be incredibly liberating for someone who may not always know how to find the right words.
What benefits do you see ballet having for people with autism?
Gosh, too many to count: improved balance, muscle tone, body coordination, motor planning, discipline, self confidence, proprioceptive skills, emotional recognition and expression, social skills... I could go on and on. Because autism manifests itself in many different ways, the definition of progress varies for each student. For a highly verbal and coordinated student, I might work more on social etiquette and take time to explain the rules of ballet class. For a nonverbal student who has anxiety about being in a class setting in the first place, even staying on their spot and doing a few of the moves can be a significant goal. My responsibility as the teacher is to do some detective work and find the access points for each child. By utilizing their strengths rather than simply pinpointing weaknesses, there is more room for improvements across all realms.
What made you get into ballet in the first place?
I was a pretty quiet and shy kid with my nose constantly in a book. Music helped me break out of my shell. I could never sit still when listening. I tried playing the piano for a while but realized that I didn’t necessarily want to make music—I wanted to move to it. So my parents signed me up for dance lessons when I was ten and from then on, I spent pretty much all of my free time after school at the dance studio. Personally, I found my natural form of expression in contemporary dance, but growing up in a classical studio made me realize that ballet is a springboard in many ways. I am grateful for the technical foundation and discipline I developed that then allowed me to explore more movement.
Can you describe a typical class at Ballet For All Kids?
It’s a little chaotic, to be honest, but there is a method to the madness—I promise! Every aspect of the class, from the uniquely composed music to the props and games we play, is designed to develop many skills in addition to ballet technique. Each student has a colored square taped to the floor to ground him or her in a familiar space. We still teach classical ballet, but with fun and engaging stories that cater to all types of learners: visual, auditory, kinesthetic, or otherwise. For example, one exercise we do is called “The Witch.” Kids pretend to cast spells all around the room, often wearing witch hats. Although the exercise itself is about 30 seconds long and seems a bit silly at first, these kids are learning how to make sharp arm movements, use their core muscles, match their facial expressions to the music, follow directions, etc. The classes build up like a typical ballet curriculum. We still want children to learn good old pliés, tendus, and pirouettes, but realize we often have to use creative teaching methods. In order to reinforce what we do in class, there is also an instructional DVD that students watch regularly. The video uses the same imagery and props and appeals to the children’s keen visual skills.
What does the future look like at Ballet For All Kids?
Bright! We want to be bigger and better—more students, volunteers, classes, and even instructors. I’m kind of a traveling teacher with my “Mary Poppins” bag of props and colored tape so I can work with various other organizations and schools. Personally, I am also hoping to intertwine my graduate studies with Ballet For All Kids in a creative way and really get the NYC branch running smoothly. But of course, the ultimate goal is to provide as many children as possible the opportunity to discover the joy of dance. Just because a child has a disability does not mean he or she is undeserving of the countless benefits of dance class. It’s in our name: Ballet For ALL Kids.
Ballet For All Kids takes place on Wednesdays at 4pm in Manhattan at You Should Be Dancing!, and Sundays at 10am in Queens at the Long Island City School of Ballet. For more information, email email@example.com or visit their website