For the past three years, some very special dance students have connected with the joy and fun of creative movement through the Kansas City Ballet’s adaptive dance program.
Spinning, tumbling, and laughing in a studio drenched with natural light, these special-needs students explore their creativity and discover unseen potential. Guided by experienced instructors in a safe, structured environment, students of all abilities find freedom in the expression of dance. They also learn and grow, expanding the boundaries of what’s possible and achievable for them.
“These classes offer an outlet for special-needs students with mixed cognitive and physical abilities to be creative,” adaptive dance instructor Grace Lewis said. “This is a safe environment where they can explore and interact.”
During adaptive classes, students participate in rhythmic activities to stimulate fine and gross motor skills, enhance speech and language development, and improve sensory, visual and auditory processing skills. They acquire body awareness, spatial understanding, and appropriate social interaction.
“On the emotional side of development, they start to recognize emotions in others and respond to those emotions with their own set of developing emotions,” instructor Erin Muenks said.
Lewis added, “They gain social skills, learn about people, and build trust. Once the trust is built, they can and do explore more.”
The Kansas City Ballet’s adaptive program was the vision of school director Grace Holmes. She had previously developed an adaptive dance curriculum through the Education and Outreach program at the Birmingham Royal Ballet in the United Kingdom.
Holmes envisioned a similar program for the Kansas City Ballet School after becoming director in 2014, so she collaborated with Artistic Director Devon Carney to bring the idea to life. Carney had previous experience with the Boston Ballet’s adaptive program during his tenure there, so he also brought insight and experience to the table.
“We started small with younger students and created a program working with students’ IEPs,” Holmes said. “It took time to find faculty with the right background, interests, and personalities to bring the program into reality. We found teachers who had experience in early special-needs education, dance therapy, and teachers with other gifts to bring to the program.”
The program’s instructors work one-on-one with families to meet the unique needs of students who have may have autism spectrum disorder, Down syndrome, apraxia, paralysis, or other diagnoses. For many of the students, who attend from across the Kansas City area, the classes overlay with other therapies they are involved in.
The team of instructors often integrate specific elements from students’ existing school individualized education programs, or IEPs, into the classes. Areas of emphasis can range from social to academic elements.
It’s not a requirement that students have a diagnosis to enroll in the adaptive classes.
“Sometimes, sensing a problem, parents will enroll a child and the teachers can help the parent identify where and what the problem might be,” said Brook Fischer, a registered dance movement therapist.
To ensure each student receives the support and instruction they need, the adaptive class sizes are limited to a maximum of six students, with three instructors and two peer models. Peer models, who are students from the Kansas City Ballet’s lower school, fill an important role in the classes.
“Children can relate to peers more easily and are more likely to copy them instead of just following directions,” Lewis said. “Peer models add an extra layer of participation.”
On the adaptive dance floor, fun and laughter are unreservedly encouraged.
Brynnlie Hensel is one of the students who loves dancing and laughs frequently in class. Hensel, 7, who has Down syndrome, was one of the first students to enroll in the adaptive classes when the program launched four years ago.
“She has so much fun,” said Brynnlie’s mom, Tisha Hensel. “She’s made friends and loves her teachers. She builds relationships with other students and talks about them all week — and all the way on the drive to class.
“Brynnlie is mainstream in school, but here she can benefit from the movement. They adapt exercises and activities for her special needs. She also has a sense of belonging here. I love the confidence she has gained that she can do ballet. It opens her eyes to possibilities.”
Adaptive teachers recognize the importance of the sense of belonging and community that the classes provide students.
“I love the equality for the students,” Muenks said. “They may feel different and not as welcome in other settings. These classes are an equalizer and they build those feelings of confidence and independence here.”
Wilson Reynolds, 7, who has autism, has been attending the program for two years.
“We like to get him into the community and he has an affinity for music,” Wilson’s mom, Leigh Reynolds, said. “Our family loves the arts and I believe in the benefit of the arts for children, especially those with special needs. I like the collaborative nature of the classes. With autism, you can close off. The class opens Wilson to other experiences.”
Wide and deep, the joy, inspiration, and learning in the adaptive classes extends from the teachers to the students — and back again.
“They have helped me to find joy in the smallest things,” Lewis said. “From the first day three years ago, my memories are so vivid. Something that is a simple task, like hopping over a square, can take these students two years to learn. Watching them light up and smile when they accomplish or master it is so rewarding. When they make progress, it is so inspiring. It makes me want to learn more, so I can help them more.”
For information on the Kansas City Ballet’s Adaptive Program, email or call 816-931-2299 ext. 2. The program will be expanding this summer to include physically integrated classes for 8- to 11-year-olds, including for those in wheelchairs.