Ballet reaches disabled students

For six years in a row, disabled students in New Haven have been given the chance to dance through the New Haven Ballet’s Shared Ability performance, in which students from the New Haven Ballet will be paired with students with physical or mental needs.

This year’s show, scheduled to take place in June, will feature approximately 25 students from the New Haven Ballet and 19 special-needs children across the range of the autism spectrum, in addition to having other physical and mental disabilities. Brad Roth, an instructor from Dancing Days, Inc., will direct the show.

“The program is a wonderful way for the children to experience the music,” said Beth Peters, the mother of a disabled participant in the Shared Ability performance. “I think it’s great for the children to get together with students from the New Haven youth ballet.”

She added that she also thinks it is a great opportunity for the mentors to work with special-needs children, emphasizing the importance of the relationship between ballet students and children with disabilities.

The Shared Ability performance benefits both New Haven ballet students and those partaking with disabilities, Roth said, as Ballet students learn to love ballet again instead of practicing under pressure, and disabled performers get a chance to experience working in the high arts.

Lisa Sanborn, interim director of the New Haven Ballet, said the program is a chance for children with disabilities to participate in the arts, and has a positive impact on the performers.

“There’s a huge difference that’s made,” she said.

The students who participate in the Shared Ability performance from the New Haven Ballet range in age from 13 to 18 years old and are some of the studio’s most advanced ballet students. Each of these students are paired with a student with disabilities four weeks into the nine week rehearsal schedule, which tends to create a bond between partners.

“The learning goes both ways,” Roth said. “The key to the whole thing is the relationships formed.”

Roth, who has been choreographing for 40 years, said he began working with people with disabilities since 1990 when he first choreographed a dance for a friend who had been in a paralyzing accident. Roth added that his first experience working with a disabled performer showed him that there is a lot of possibility for creative choreography.

Roth instructs New Haven Ballet students to artistically mirror the behavior of students with disabilities. As an example, Roth pointed out that many of the children with autism will jump when excited and that New Haven Ballet students should find a way to incorporate that into the dance.
“You have to work with the limitations of movement, but there’s a lot to discover,” Roth said.

Roth said his experiences choreographing for those with physical disabilities led him to create Dancing Days, an organization that helps people with physical and mental limitations experience dance. Roth said he eventually became involved in the New Haven Ballet when the founder of the New Haven Ballet, Noble Barker, asked him to organize the first Shared Ability performance in New Haven six years ago.

The New Haven Ballet will perform the Nutcracker beginning on Dec. 13.

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