Given a chance to be little ballerinas, and smiling right down to their toes

With its practice bar, mirrored walls and lush orchestral music, the small dance studio in Bayside, Queens, seems like countless other ballet schools that nurture the dreams of little girls.

Shekinah Tiabo gets a rose from Joann Ferrara, a physical therapist who teaches a ballet class to girls with cerebral palsy and other debilitating conditions. Photo: James Estrin/The New York Times

Shekinah Tiabo gets a rose from Joann Ferrara, a physical therapist who teaches a ballet class to girls with cerebral palsy and other debilitating conditions. Photo: James Estrin/The New York Times

By Corey Kilgannon, New York Times May 5, 2006

Parents peek in from a crowded waiting room as a patient teacher demonstrates first-position to little girls proud simply to be wearing tights, tutus and ballet slippers.

But this studio holds one special class a week for dancers whose movements do not exactly exhibit the refined control of a prima ballerina. There are no lithe leaps, perfect pirouettes or pointed toes here. Most girls cannot walk or stand, much less make a shallow curtsy. Their crutches and walkers lie nearby and their customized ballet slippers are stretched over leg braces.

Young girls who have cerebral palsy and other debilitating physical conditions at a ballet recital held at Mary Louis Academy in Queens. Photo: James Estrin/The New York Times

The eight little ballet students, who have cerebral palsy and other debilitating physical conditions, are assisted in class by teenage volunteers with strong healthy bodies and infinite patience. The teacher is Joann Ferrara, a physical therapist who owns and runs Associated Therapies, where most of the girls go for treatment.

Even at a tender age — the girls range from 3 to 7 — they grasp that they will never romp in a playground or flip onto a gym mat, let alone play hopscotch, tag or hide-and-seek. But being little girls, they are not immune to the dream of being a glamorous ballerina swathed in frilly pink, gliding gloriously on a stage in front of everyone.

“Every little girl wants to be a ballerina, and my daughter wanted to know why she couldn’t,” said Maria Siaba, whose daughter Veronica, 7, is in the class. “I would bring her into a ballet school and they said, ‘We can’t accommodate her.’ Outside, I’d have to explain to her that she couldn’t do what all the other girls are doing.”

For an hour a week, Veronica and seven other girls from Queens escape a world plagued by awkward physical motion and enter a room where elegant music is played and they get a taste of movement that is graceful, smooth, supple and refined. Ms. Ferrara teaches only the basics of ballet. The girls do not perform full pliés or pirouettes, and they are lifted for leaps. While she coaches the girls to lower and raise themselves and turn slowly, Ms. Ferrara constantly reminds them to smile and “be proud.”

Shekinah Tiabo having her makeup applied before performing in a ballet recital. Photo: James Estrin/The New York Times

Shekinah Tiabo having her makeup applied before performing in a ballet recital. Photo: James Estrin/The New York Times

And even if the limbs do not obey, the dancers have absorbed the traditional ballet ethic of disciplined hard work. One day all too soon, they will leave their ballet lessons behind and will work simply to stand or walk or move without being too ungainly.

“I just want them to feel the sheer joy of moving and to be proud of themselves,” Ms. Ferrara said. She began the dance class three years ago after hearing repeated laments from the families of girls she treated. “The parents all said their daughters wanted to take ballet like all the other girls, but no ballet schools would accept them,” she said.

She recruited a group of teenagers to assist the dancers and paired them up. Most pairs have been together ever since. When Monica Chaffardet, 5, began the class, her left side was so weak that she was barely able to use a walker. Heather O’Halleran, 16, of Flushing, has been so persistent with her that Monica is just about ready to stand with the use of a cane, and doctors hope that she will walk one day without any help.

Are ballet lessons therapeutic to children with special needs? The short answer is a resounding YES! The Performing Arts School of Classical Ballet, San Antonio, TX. Photo: James Estrin/The New York Times

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