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8th September 2015

Children with Cerebral Palsy Given the Gift of Dance

When Natalia discovered that the New York City Ballet offered dancing workshops for kids, she was eager to sign up her daughter, Pearl. But there was one catch: Pearl has cerebral palsy.

Natalia and her daughter, Pearl, spend a lot of time together. They talk, they dance, and they laugh. They also spend a lot of time focusing on medical interventions for Pearl’s condition: she has cerebral palsy. “My whole life is a Mommy and Me program,” says Natalia, “and given my daughter’s disability, the rest of my life is most likely going to be a Mommy and Me program.”

Cerebral palsy is caused by a traumatic brain injury, and it can affect all aspects of body movement: muscle control, coordination, reflex, posture, balance, fine and gross motor skills, and even oral motor functioning.

Natalia discovered an outreach program through the New York City Ballet where kids can interact with real ballet dancers, learn more about dance, and build confidence in their skills.

“I really would have loved to have done one of those with Pearl, but I didn’t want her to be the focus of other people’s stares or comments and I wanted to really protect her from that,” explains Natalia. She decided to write to them and ask if they could offer a special workshop for her daughter.

“I wrote an email to the New York City Ballet,” says Natalia. “It would mean so much to my daughter and children like her to be able to take part in a New York City Ballet workshop and for one day feel like they, too, could become ballerinas.” She figured the worst they would do is respond and say they’re not interested.

Not only did the New York City Ballet set up four workshops for Natalia, they invited other children with cerebral palsy to participate as well. They also reached out to Dr. Joseph Dutkowsky, an expert at the Weinberg Family Cerebral Palsy Center at Columbia University, and asked if he would like to come help.

When the children showed up for the ballet workshop, the dancers noticed their braces and crutches limited their movement. They asked Dr. Dutkowsky what they should do.

He responded, “This is dance. Not therapy.” He decided that everyone should take their braces off and be fully present in their bodies without any sort of restrictive devices. The decision to remove the braces had a huge impact on the children.

Joanne Duff, remembers watching her daughter, Juliet, dance. “Freedom, total freedom. She can let her body go. She can be the same as someone else.” Debra Saum adds, “When I see Maggie dance, I really see her heart. I see joy. And that, for a parent, is just the best.”

The children also inspired the dancers from the New York City Ballet. “I see parents who are always holding, literally holding their children up or pulling them out of a wheelchair. And when I can see them sitting and seeing their child be independent, yeah, I get emotional,” says Maria Kowroski.

“It was a really emotional day,” adds Adrian Danchig-Waring. “Maria and I had not been prepared for how connected we would feel immediately with the group of kids that we had. In fact we had under-prepared for how energetic, enthusiastic, and physically capable these kids turned out to be.”

Thanks to Natalia’s letter, 19 children with disabilities danced at Lincoln Center, and the New York City Ballet will be continuing the program for the foreseeable future.