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Adaptive program allows children of all abilities to experience dance

The “buddies” and students in the adaptive dance pilot program held last season at SheLor School of Dance pose together. The program will be held again this year in an expanded capacity. Front row, from left: Harlie Quinn, Elise Rodgers, Lydia Osinak, Caroline Rundle, Kendall Gray, Blake Dunton, Reilly Huff, Evelyn Doctor, and Leah Bender. Back row, from left: Avery Poston, Lauren Birckbichler, Leah Poskin, Morgan Coughenour, Ava Hindman, Rhyan Deal, and Makayla Himes, program creator.

BUTLER TWP — A requirement for attaining a doctoral degree in occupational therapy from Chatham University is allowing local children with disabilities to take dance class just like any other kid.

Makayla Himes, who graduated in 2016 from Slippery Rock Area High School and earned her Ph.D. this year from Chatham, developed a syllabus for adaptive dance at SheLor School of Dance, where she spent 15 years as a student in her youth.

The syllabus and Himes’ work in teaching the class served as her capstone project, which was a requirement in earning her doctoral degree.

Miss Makayla’s Adaptive Dance was a pilot program at SheLor with just a few students last year, but has returned for the current year as a 10-week program.

Adaptive dancer, Kendall Gray, right, smiles with her “buddy,” Caroline Rundle. Rundle and other older dancers at SheLor serve as “buddies” for the adaptive dance students, who may have emotional, psychological, physical or other challenges.

One feature of the adaptive program is that each student is assigned a “buddy” who is an older dance student to shadow them during each class.

Himes said she was pleasantly surprised at the number of SheLor students who volunteered to serve as a buddy in the program, as well as their commitment to the task.

Each student’s buddy keeps them on task, helps them with moves, and even performs short solos for the delighted adaptive students.

“Some of the students would not have been able to participate without them,” said Lori Portman-Lewis, owner at SheLor.

Himes said a single class might focus on the adaptive students accomplishing one dance move or step after the “Hello Song,” and each class finishes up with the “Goodbye Song.”

Unlike most SheLor students, adaptive students are given much more freedom when performing steps or moves.

“We meet the students where they are,” Himes said. “The can come to class and think ‘I can be a ballerina,’ whatever that looks like for them.”

She said research shows that participation in activities helps with developing friendships for children with physical, cognitive or emotional disorders or diagnoses.

“Dance helps with gross motor skills, coordination, balance, fine-motor skills and dexterity,” Himes said. “I saw some of them really find a passion for dance.”

Portman-Lewis said much of the students’ delight comes from participating in an activity just like any other kid.

“That extends to the parents also,” she said. “It makes them feel socially accepted that their children are doing the same thing (typical) children are doing.”

Portman-Lewis said the 2023-24 season represents her dance school’s 40th year in Butler, and the adaptive dance class is a perfect way to celebrate that milestone.

“We need to be more community-oriented and offer things like this,” she said, “and Makayla is my gift.”

The first official session of Miss Makayla’s Adaptive Dance class will be held on Tuesday, Sept. 19. Classes will run weekly until Nov. 10.

Richard and Tracy Dunton, of Butler Township, cannot wait for classes to start for their daughter, Blake, who is autistic.

Blake was thrilled to get new pink ballet slippers at the store at SheLor, which Portman-Lewis ensured were a proper fit.

The Duntons tried soccer for Blake before discovering the adaptive dance pilot program last year at SheLor.

Blake Dunton, an adaptive dance student, poses with her “buddy,” Ava Hindman, a competitive dance student at SheLor School of Dance. 9-6-23

“We are just very grateful there is an activity in our area for kids who need the extra help,” Richard said.

He said Blake stops in her tracks to watch when the singers and dancers perform on “America’s Got Talent,” so dance seems to be the perfect fit for her.

Richard said the adaptive class also gives parents a chance to chat with one another about similar experiences.

Blake declared the “Goodbye Song” her favorite part of class last year, and called Miss Makayla “nice.”

“Blake had a smile on her face the entire time,” Himes said of her student’s reaction to adaptive dance class.

Tracy said the class allows her daughter to interact with others on a social level.

“Being with peers like her allows her to be who she is,” she said.

Tracy said Blake struggles with awareness of her body’s location in space and time.

“Dance has precise movements, which is very helpful,” she said.

Tracy hopes the adaptive dance program at SheLor School of Dance continues for her daughter and all the families who participate in it.

“These women have the knowledge, patience and dedication to their craft to share it with kids like Blake,” she said.

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