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Ballet and the Autistic Student

by A Hallmark

May 20, 2003 Last fall I was a new ballet teacher and found out that I had an autistic student in my class. Needless to say, I was a bit nervous, but readers on CriticalDance and my sister-in-law (who is a special ed teacher) put me at ease.

Emily was my original autistic dancer. Loves ballet...not as thrilled about tap and jazz. Tap is a bit loud for her and the intricate movements for shuffle ball change are a bit harder for her. But she is a trooper and works hard. She does have a tendency to talk a bit to herself in class. The classmates accepted her as she was - once we explained her condition (Yes, they were confused at first). They are actually very protective of her and help keep her on track. She doesn't do everything perfectly (no one does), but she has learned a lot this year.

In January, I acquired another "beginner" class. This one had Emily's sister, Eleanor, in the class. She is also autistic. She started dance in the fall because she saw her sister take private lessons during the summer. She's not as into it as Emily, but enjoys the class. She's sweet as a little songbird. (She sings the words to songs with lyrics as she dances.) Incidentally, this is also the same class that my daughter takes. I didn't get to work on as much technique with them...I only had them for 30 minutes of ballet, and most of the spring semester was spent working on recital work. But Eleanor worked hard as well.

Along with adding this other class, I lost my assistant teacher when she became the primary tap/jazz teacher for that class. In the three weeks I was without an assistant, I "lost" Emily to the corner of the room. Her learning capabilities slumped, especially in tap. I requested and got a student assistant. I explained Emily's condition and that I needed her to stay on top of Emily to keep her out of the corner. After the first class, my assistant learned what was needed and stepped up admirably. Emily improved dramatically.

Probably the only sour note was when we had them come in for privates one Friday afternoon. Eleanore did NOT like the fact that her weekly routine was messed up. Also, she did not like the fact that she was the only student in the room and kept wanting her mirror image to disappear. I suggested that we turn our backs to the mirror, which we did...worked like a charm. Emily was great. She loved the attention. Daily routine changes didn't bother her.

So we had rehearsals and recital last weekend. Lights did not bother them. They did beautifully. Compliments from parents-in-the-know on how wonderful both girls did. I don't know about the other parents...don't really care, actually. During rehearsals, Eleanor was supposed to stay seated at the end of her ballet dance and wait for black out. She stood up and bowed to the audience several times. Very cute. For recital, she remembered to stay seated.

Emily did very well with the extra things they were given to do in the two weeks before recital. She is very good about remembering things as long as she has someone to follow. The finalé was a bit much for her, so I comforted her after final bows until her escort came back stage to get her.

This year has been such an experience for me. I have learned so much. I was talking with their Mom about the girls returning next year. We are still going to keep them separated into two classes to keep them focused. I will be teaching only one class...yeah! Emily will still be in my beginner class.

I am looking forward to another great year!

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