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Mixed-Ability Dance: Helping Students With Special Needs Grow and Learn

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Karen Peterson and Dancers (KPD), a mixed-ability dance group perform with the The Miami String Project earlier this year.

I founded Karen Peterson and Dancers (KPD) in Miami in 1990. We are recognized as the leading mixed-ability dance company in the U.S. Southeast. As a not-for-profit dance organization, KPD commissions and produces the work of dance artists with and without disabilities -- presenting excellence in dance through our quality-based programs, community performances and educational workshops.

Students become better prepared to meet challenges by learning the demands of organizing movement, and by finding the courage to perform in front of others. Our company, integrating dancers with and without disabilities, creates and performs "mixed-ability" dance as an inclusive art form on a year-round basis. The dancers collaborate, research and integrate their personal movement styles, and discover an innovative dance language for choreography. The troupe provides a positive role model for the disability community and offers new visual inspiration for traditional dance audiences.

Student Movement

When I first began working with wheelchair dancers in 1990, this was cutting-edge and new in Miami, and there was much feedback and interest from audiences viewing mixed-ability dance for the first time. Dance classes were not offered to the local disability population. There was a void to be filled, and I took action by inviting teens and young adults into the company. My idea was to use the inclusive form of mixed-ability dance with the traditions of contemporary and improvisational dance. Contemporary dance can be tailored to specific groups where people at all ability levels can enjoy the creative and physical aspects of movement and performance.

In 2005, we began a new program to for Miami-Dade Public Schools to introduce students with autism, learning disabilities, and visual, physical, language and emotional impairments to dance instruction by developing a new and unique dance residency program.

There are more than 6,000 students with physical, emotional, learning and/or developmental disabilities in the Miami-Dade Public Schools, students who have little access to movement education. I quickly developed a passion to spearhead this new program, and we have received positive feedback from the Miami-Dade School Board, The Children's Trust and Miami-Dade Cultural Affairs for its process and results.

What started from a small program in six schools has grown to 24 schools throughout Miami-Dade County. On an annual basis, up to 400 middle and senior high school students with diverse abilities and special needs work with our Miami-based professional dance artists. Their instruction culminates in a final community performance open to the public (our annual Talent Showcase).

In our 15-week residency program, teachers meet once a week with 15-20 special needs students. During these one-hour classes, we utilize the researched movement methods that students apply toward their final five-to-seven-minute dance piece. Students with disabilities participate in all aspects of the program: the creation of the choreography, music, costumes and, of course, the resulting performance. Through their involvement in all elements of the production, students learn to discover and develop creativity, teamwork and self-esteem.

Increased Ability

Over the last seven years, we have found that students with disabilities, when involved in a positive dance program, improve in the following ways:

  • They make more eye contact with others.
  • They make more physical contact with others.
  • They learn how to provide appropriate assistance to others.
  • They move in synchrony or partnership with others.
  • They learn how to take direction from others.
  • They learn how to respect the personal space of others.
  • They learn self-expression and physical self-confidence.

And last (but certainly not least), they learn to play and have fun!

The students also imitate movement as demonstrated by the instructor, learn to improvise movement and incorporate all of these learning skills toward the final product. We see them learning how to be inventive, resourceful and imaginative and developing appreciation for their peers. They also map new pathways for old muscle memory and find new spatial directions for limbs and body parts.

I find that these programs often reach students in a way that traditional classroom teachers have not been trained to do.

With encouragement and support to be physically creative, many young teens with low self-esteem develop the courage to move through rhythm, become eager to perform and discover something new about themselves.

I have seen many young women not willing to participate in the beginning of a residency, only to then blossom and want to take center stage at the end.

I have seen students who use wheelchairs not want to be involved at first, and then have the chair become the central focus of the choreography.

I have seen young teen men frown upon dance at first, but then thrive when improvisation includes hip-hop moves that flow naturally from their bodies.

With the idea of teamwork and group choreography, students give up their egos and become team players. Often personal attitudes take a back seat for the good of the ensemble.

This program provides students with the opportunity to learn about dance despite their economic, disability and geographic limitations.

Joining the Dance

I would offer the following advice for dance instructors who may want to start their own mixed-ability dance program:

  • Learn the basics of contemporary composition and contact improvisation.
  • Take the basics and tailor the material for your specific group.
  • There are many instructional books that you can find on the web.
  • Be flexible, be curious, be patient, and your students will love you for opening up creativity and personal expression through movement.
  • There are also many mixed-ability inclusive dance workshops offered by dance companies and teachers in the States and abroad. This year, we have been invited to lead workshops in Europe and Central America. Research "mixed-ability dance" to find dates and places near you, and join the fun in your own community.

Our dance company's commitment to and vision of inclusive dance challenges perceptions and explores the boundaries of what is perceived as disabled and non-disabled.

We aim to help students become better prepared to meet challenges by learning and growing via the demands of organizing movement and finding the courage to perform in front of others.

Through the beauty and wonder of mixed-ability performance and all-inclusive dance, the labels of developmental, intellectual or physical disabilities disappear once a young person manifests the glory of dance.

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Trista's picture
Substitute teacher for grades k-5

I think this is an amazing thing that you are doing. I realize that sometimes, students who have disabilities tend to shut themselves out of their social surroundings. This is an AMAZING opportunity for students!! I love the fact that there are students who do not have disabilities as well as students in wheelchairs working together. It gives a chance for every student to be included. I also strongly agree that this program would help students to open up and find themselves through dance. I can't express how amazing I think this is. I love getting my students involved with physical activity in the classroom, and working with others. I really hope I can make a difference in the classroom like you are doing in this program!

Debora Wondercheck's picture
Debora Wondercheck
Executive Director, Founder of Arts & Learning Conservatory

Wow hats off to you and your effort, really I appreciate your wok, a great deal of thought every one has the right to express his or her talent and when its come to arts it equal for all , every human being is equal and so every one should have the same chance.

Andrea Moxham's picture

I loved hearing about this wonderful company and all the great work it is doing. I like the way the students are so involved in all aspects of dancing and dance production and learn new skills. It is great to see the personal improvement in each person's life such as making eye contact, learning to respect others space, and gaining confidence when previously not wanting to take part. you are doing a great work here!

Michelle Lazar, MA, MT-BC's picture
Michelle Lazar, MA, MT-BC
Autism Specialist & Music Therapist

I particularly appreciated that you involve individuals with special needs in the actual creation process, not just the final outcome. Too often, we underestimate the inspiration and contributions those that think outside the box can offer to a project.

PaulJ's picture

As a PE instructor, it is often difficult to include students with disabilities in the regular activities we engage in. So often, these students require an alternate activity, or one to one instruction with an aide/specialist. This activity can put them right alongside their peers and allows them to be seen as an equal.

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