I have a brief history with dance, like an on-again off-again love affair which began in the 80s and which I still can’t shake. There are pictures of me in lemon yellow satin with red fringe from dance recitals at age six. My daughter occasionally runs through the living room with a white feather boa from another show in the early 90s. And, if you can believe it, I still have the tap shoes from a brief Irish step dancing stint.
Dance, for me, was always fun in a whimsical way—a thing I would revisit on occasion, but for which I did not hold enough love or discipline to pursue whole-heartedly.
When my son, Charlie, was officially diagnosed with cerebral palsy and then later, when he received his first wheelchair, “dance” in the traditional sense seemed out of the question. But then we discovered swim therapy and horseback riding therapy and suddenly all these things I thought were impossible were not only doable but also extraordinarily beneficial for him.
He, like me, is a lover of music. We seek out the live bands at the county fair or the lone fiddle on a crowded street corner. And from his chair, he closes his eyes, grins an easy grin and sways to the music with more rhythm than I ever had on the dance floor.
So, it was with a joyful heart that still beats a little for ballet slippers and group-stretching and wall-to-wall mirrors, that I discovered Ballet for ALL KIDS, a documentary following a group of kids with a wide range of special needs as they learn to move their bodies to the music and find the freedom and confidence and camaraderie that dance can bring.
The documentary follows these students at the Ballet for All Kids studio in Los Angeles as they prepare for their dance recital and reflect on what dance has meant for them.
Sarah, who is a freshman in college, says, “Within a dance, I forget any infirmities I have, I am free — it is the closest thing to flying.” And Liam, age twelve, dreams of a professional ballet career, saying, “I want to be like Mikhail Baryshnikov when I grow up.”
This is the thing that I could never pin down about dance when I did it, but that I finally recognize in Charlie. It reaches in and finds the fundamental chord in you, regardless of your ability. He forgets he’s in a chair while the music’s going. He turns into part Ray Charles, part John Travolta — which, if you can just picture that for a moment in a six-year-old blonde boy in a wheelchair, it’s a wonder to see.
And this is what I see in these students who are all ages and all abilities. They come together to practice moving their bodies in ways that are often hard, in ways that require discipline and focus, much like the physical therapy they are well-acquainted with in a more traditional sense.
But this is neither traditional or clinical. It’s truly therapy through the arts and it allows them to take ownership of both their bodies and their creativity. These kids set aside braces and walkers next to gym bags and warm-up jackets and push their bodies hard, but it is with joy. That’s the key. Because it is also play, also fun, they don’t mind the work.
When Brianna enters the dance studio, her mother says, “There is a smile as wide as the Grand Canyon. Her pride in self and her excitement that comes from ballet cannot be measured or matched.”
This is what I want for Charlie. Dance brings the opportunity for self-assurance, and I cannot think of anything more vital to his quality of life than a love of the arts and a confidence in himself. This is why he rides horses and floats in pools and dances in my arms at the street fair – anything at all that will bring him the opportunity to move in a way that is enjoyable is worth it.
Ballet for All Kids has locations in Los Angeles and New York and Chicago. For a preview of the documentary by Dancin’ Dan Productions, you can click here. And if you secretly wish you were Baryshnikov or a disco goddess, more power to you.