How this ballet school is making a difference in the lives of typical and special needs kids is incredible

Jared Talavera

Photo credit: Bonnie Schlachte via Ballet for All Kids

What inspired you to start Ballet for All Kids? 

I was a dancer when I was younger and I went to college on full scholarship. Life happened and I decided I wasn’t going to go to New York to pursue dancing or theatre.

My daughter was about two years old, and she’s typical. I was rocking her to sleep one night and I thought “gosh, if my daughter happened to have autism or cerebral palsy where would I put her in ballet class?”

I did some research and there was absolutely nothing available for kids with special needs to take ballet classes.

Was there something therapeutic about ballet that made you want to start teaching it?

Ballet was central in my life. When I was really little I always loved and loved and loved ballet. I remember having these things called growing pains when I was little.

I tried out for a ballet class, I must have been in third grade. It was so painful for me that I had to stop. Come seventh grade I told my mom, “I don’t care that my legs hurt. I just want to do ballet.” I just started dancing. It was just one of those things that I was just incredibly passionate about.

Kids are attracted to all sorts of things in life. Whether it’s ballet or soccer or painting or whatever. Kids with disabilities are the same way. I think kids with special needs deserve the same opportunities because you never know what could spark from somebody.

So many of my parents have come to me and said,“I have tried my kid in a typical class and got kicked out and we’re so happy we found you.”

I have had one boy with me whose school just went on a field trip to see The Nutcracker and he just fell in love with it. He said “I want to do this!”  His mom said, “I have no idea where I am going to find him a ballet class.” She found me.

The first thing: we’re just a ballet studio that teaches classical ballet.

The second thing: I do really feel that in my heart of hearts is that we are an empathy organisation because we are advocating that we are really Ballet for ‘All’ Kids.

It’s so amazing because people underestimate people with disabilities. I have people that come to my performances that are blown away.

I won’t forget the very first performances we gave it must have been in ’08 or ’09. I was renting studio space and the owner of the studio space asked if Ballet for All Kids could perform a number at their recital. I said “oh yeah. Of course!”

There was a scrim in front of the stage that projected each number before it went on. My husband was in the audience and up on the scrim it said “Ballet for All Kids: Teaching kids of all abilities and disabilities.”

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Volunteers and kids performing. Photo credit: Bonnie Schlachte

Behind the scrim I was having a hard time getting my kids all lined up. So we were taking up a really long time. My husband said you could tell that people were starting to snicker. Making fun of it like “of course, disabled kids. They’re taking forever!”

 

What was really crazy was we got on stage and we performed the number. I literally felt a wave of love come from the audience.

I remember one woman in the audience was like “I have never been so excited and nervous at the same time. The nervous part of me thought ‘my son has autism and he is about to go out there and perform.’”

Then she said equally the very proud side of her was “my son has autism and he is about to perform in front of 350 people.” She said it was the weirdest feeling for her because it felt  so strong and she said she had never been so proud.

My kids just performed at Disneyland which was really remarkable. People all over America go to Disneyland to perform. They have a performing arts program there.

When I sent the audition tape they called me up to tell me “your audition tape made me cry! We can’t judge you like other performing groups. We totally want you to do it.”

It was really nice too because they were so gratuitous. The woman who reviewed our tape said “I’ve been working here for like 25 years and what you guys just did was amazing. That really just blew me away.”

I want them to demonstrate over and over again to other people that these kids can dance. I have kids now who are dancing in typical dance studios.

Tell me about your ballet training.

I trained at the Royal Academy of Dance, Maryland Hall. My teacher taught me all the way through college. I still keep in touch with her. I studied everyday of junior high and high school in ballet class.

When I created Ballet for All Kids, I didn’t just want to do a dance class. There’s a lot of programs out there that teach; they call it ballet – it’s really just movement. They’re not really giving them a classical ballet education. When I did it I was going to teach kids classical ballet. I didn’t want to dumb it down. Do pliés; do a relevé and call that a ballet class. That is why I have a lot of typical kids in my class. I don’t feel any qualms. They’re learning ballet with all the other kids.

They’re still learning all the proper techniques. What makes Ballet for All Kids unique is that we are actually teaching kids ballet. I really believe there is a therapy to that.

You gain something out of learning the technique. You learn the technique and the artistry comes out when you can embody the technique and you can forget about it. After you put in months and months; years and years; days and days of perfecting the technique you can get on stage and literally forget about the technique and just dance.

I know that as a dancer growing up I was able to take advance placement classes; I was able to work 3 or 4 jobs; put myself through college. I was able to do all that stuff because I was classically trained in ballet. I had incredible self discipline and self focus and confidence. I knew I could do it. I knew from having a classical arts education that I wasn’t going to give up when I was sick or tired or in pain. There is a tenacity that dancers learn. You just do it.

I think giving that training to kids with special needs, the benefits are just amplified. You’re dealing with 3 basic domains: motor (proprioceptive skills, balance, coordination); learning to listen (increased attention and focus); memory skills; sequencing skills; to partner up with people and work as a unit.

I have heard many great stories from my parents. Insane stories of how they started ballet – in 3 or 4 months their kid was doing better in school.

They were able to stop falling out of a chair; play on the playground without falling, able to listen better.

I had one parent come to me and swear that because of ballet her kid was finally able to learn how to read. “If it wasn’t for the ballet, he wouldn’t be reading.”

I had this one girl who was completely non-verbal and her mom wrote to me on New Year’s Day “my daughter hates parties; hates crowds. Every party we go to she is allowed to bring some videos to watch and she chose to bring her ballet video.” She said “it was really, really lovely because normally she sits in the corner by herself and I look over and all the little girls have gone over to her and watching her ballet video together.” She said it was amazing because it was the one time her child could interact with typical kids and she was involved in the party. She was sharing something with typical kids.

Here is this atypical, non-verbal girl who normally doesn’t do or say anything is completely dancing with all these kids.

It’s beyond me.

Are kids scared to make mistakes?

Oh god no! In fact in some ways a lot of my kids have anxiety disorders. When you have a disability like autism there’s a lot of anxiety related to that. I’ve had kids come up to me and say:

“Miss Bonnie I can’t go on, I can’t go on. People are going to make fun of me.”

“Get out there and you’ll be fine.”

I have had to deal with a lot of kids with anxiety and I have had to tell them it’s not about any of that. It’s really just about who you are as a person. Them getting up there shows such bravery. It’s so courageous. That in itself is a beautiful art. It is such a beautiful expression of humanity. They constantly surprise me.

How does seeing the improvements in your students make you feel?

It makes me feel really humbled. It makes me feel like I am definitely an instrument. I think the Native Americans call it “hollow bone.” I really feel like in class I’m working off intuition. I really feel like this was my life’s purpose.

Every time I feel like I’ve had enough or Ballet for All Kids is going to fall financially, something happens and God, or great spirit intervenes and says “nope, you’re not done yet.”

It’s growing now. It started with a couple of students in Los Angeles. We’re now in New York City. I have a woman come over from Croatia who wants to start teaching it in Croatia. I have a girl coming in next week from Virginia who wants to start teaching in Virginia.

It’s really lovely to see how the program is naturally blossoming. If there is a kid out there who wants to learn ballet, they should be given the opportunity to learn it.

Ultimately, my goal is to get as many people learning the methodology and teach as many kids as possible.

Would you say starting Ballet for All Kids was one of the best things you had ever done?

Yeah! There’s my husband and my daughter. Besides them Ballet for All Kids is definitely up there.

It was one of those flashes. An “aha” moment.

I have had students who have been with me forever. We have about 150 volunteers in our program which is great.

A lot of them (volunteers) come from private schools. Los Angeles has a mandate for community service hours. In order to graduate they have to do some sort of volunteering and so we have a robust group of high school students from various public and private schools.

They only need 10 hours. They start and they literally fall in love with these kids.

I have had many of my volunteers who have never been exposed to kids with special needs. All of a sudden they’re making careers out of working with kids with special needs. From teachers to occupational therapists.

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Ballet recital. Photo credit: Bonnie Schlachte

I have a girl that started a program in New York City. She was a volunteer with me. She’s a senior at NYU. She started Ballet for All Kids there last year. She already has three classes and two privates. It’s growing!

There’s a weird synergy when you share what you love with other people and they’re helping these kids. All of a sudden they’re helping them with pliés. There’s something really empowering to the volunteers.

What is the Schlachte Method? Can you tell me more about the method that you developed?

In the method I teach everything visually, auditorially and kinaesthetically. I have music that was specifically composed for it — composed by my sister and I. She’s a classically trained pianist. We composed all of the music to go along with images; to go along with things that I wanted to convey emotionally.

At one point in the pre-ballet, when we’re teaching the little kids, the music is dun-dun-daaa. It’s very much trying to teach that. You should really look in the mirror and make an icky face. Make a face like a pirate, be angry.

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Bonnie teaching students. Photo credit: Bonnie Schlachte

The kids hear the music and the music is very strong. This is the kind of movement that I am really looking for. The music really tries to mimic the movement. One movement – pas de bourrée (beating steps) – the image is you’re walking on stilts. The music sounds very ‘circusy’.

I also sing a lot. How the brain processes music is very different from how it processes language. A lot of kids with autism have auditory processing disorder. They don’t really understand words. It comes out sounding like the Charlie Brown teacher, “wawa wawa wawa.”

You have been in dance class and how many times have you heard “I want you to imagine your foot is like a paint brush and you’re brushing it along the floor. Now do it.”

If you think about that as a brain process all those steps that your brain has to do to put that image into your body to dance like that is a complicated thing. It’s not only the words but also abstract thinking.

I have a DVD that goes along with each class where all that ballet technique you’re being told to do I actually do it. Like the tendu. You have to sweep your foot against the floor. We’re going to be like Cinderella sweeping up the ashes and so I tie a broomstick to my leg. Your leg’s the broomstick and your feet are the bristles. Kids can understand that visual technique.

A pliés in fourth position, I have a little shield and where the movement initiates is really like somebody tying a rope around your thigh and pulling it. Kids that think visually can really see the technique. They don’t need to do all that abstract thinking.

So how does a ballet dancer become certified in the Schlachte method?

They have to fly their butts to LA. The only thing that I ask is that they at least have experience working with kids with special needs.

Some people might take it like a duck to water whilst others don’t. These people who have been certified have volunteered with the special olympics just to see if it’s something they like.

Get involved in an organisation that works with kids with special needs. We are always looking for volunteers. It doesn’t have to be ballet. It can be horse therapy; it can be special olympics; it can be anything. See if you have a connection with a kid. If you do, then contact me. I will be more than happy. We can work out some arrangement to get them certified.

How do these kids react when they hear these French words for the first time?

They all get primed because they all get the video so they know exactly what I’m talking about. It’s really hilarious because some of my kids would memorise the entire video.

I have this one boy. He’s non-verbal because of his autism. I remember being in class with him one day and I hear him singing the instruction from the video. For a lot of them, it’s just another word.

I will use a lot of the props in class from the video so if they’re kinaesthetic they can touch the cheese.

All 3 types of learning are happening in the brain at one time. I think that is what is really unique about the program. It’s a way of teaching ballet that you don’t need to have a special need to learn the technique. It’s just a really fun way to learn ballet. So I have a lot of typical kids who take my class because they really like it and it’s a fun way for them to learn.

We had a bring a friend to ballet class and one of the girls was so cute. She was doing all the moves she watched in the video.

So what do you do when a child refuses to do something or has a tantrum?

Behavioural modification.

I had this girl, non-verbal, who likes to hit and bang her head when she’s mad. Some kids are doing it to escape the class; some are doing it for attention seeking. Are you done? Let’s get back to ballet.

You have to figure out what it is and why they are doing this as a behaviour. Then you have to ask them “are you doing this because you’re scared? because you’re in physical pain?”

So do your expectations of your students influence their achievement?

I tell this to all my volunteers: you absolutely get what you expect.

If you’re not going to get away with it in a ballet class, you’re not going to get away with it in mine. I tell all my volunteers, especially with the little ones, you are all Mary Poppins in my class. You are firm but you are kind. They are instantly like “ok, yeah!”

Mary Poppins wouldn’t let them run around the room and do whatever, no way! Once I explain that to my volunteers they’re all like “oh”. They instantly get it. Our kids, especially with special needs are so sensitive. You get what you expect and expectations play a huge part in it.

Derek Hough who was one of the pro dancers on last year’s US Dancing With the Stars wrote in his memoir about the stigma he faced being a male dancer. What are your thoughts about the stigma/stereotype of male dancers particularly in ballet?

It’s slowly becoming less of an issue, but male dancers are athletes. It’s not easy what dancers are expected to do.

Look at all the NFL and NBA players., Look at how many of them take ballet. It makes them better athletes. Most running backs and quarterbacks in the NFL take ballet because it teaches them flexibility, how to fall, how to balance. It makes them better athletes.

I had this one dad come up to me and he said, “I just wanted to share this with you that my son is in the boy scouts. One of the guys was being all snotty and said ‘I bet I can jump higher than you’.

‘Oh no way. I’m a basketball player.’ The guy jumped up and shot up instantly.

It’s just a matter of educating parents. It’s just knowing that it is okay to do what you love.

In Salsa dancing, one of the things male dancers get taught is how to treat women. Is this something that is also present in ballet?

Ballet teaches you to respect people. There’s definitely a thing where you can injure people when you are dancing. Even women, you need to know where the other dancers are and you have to have a respect for them. You can really hurt them. Ballerinas need to learn all these things so that they aren’t hurting the male dancers when they are doing all these crazy lifts. They’re helping the male dancers.   

Even in very little ballet dances, how to respect each other as dancers; how to respect the teacher. You have to have respect for the art form and you have to have respect for people trying to do the art form — whether that’s the teacher or another dancer.

Any dance class you go to you don’t make fun of another dancer. That’s what I really like about classically trained anybody is that when somebody else is getting corrected, everybody watches and they see that correction.

There is something you really learn as a dancer that there needs to be a respect for everyone because they’re doing it too.

Was there anything that you discovered about yourself after starting Ballet for All Kids?

I feel that my kids have been my greatest teachers. They teach me so much and constantly. I’m learning to be a better teacher all the time. I’m always learning from my mistakes.

They teach me such tenacity. There is something about kids, they’re so compassionate and there is so little judgement there.

There is unconditional support and love all the time. It has taught me what it is to be human. We’re all human and we all have the same hopes and dreams and feelings. We’re all in this together whether we like it or not.

There’s no people who’s better than other people. Just because somebody doesn’t have the capacity to stand up for themselves or advocate for themselves does not mean they shouldn’t be treated just like everyone else. Everyone is human.

We are all disabled. We all have disabilities. Some are better at hiding than others. None of us are perfect.

What can people do to support Ballet for All Kids?

There’s the obvious one which is financial. Ballet for All Kids provides ballet for all kids with financial problems or not. Ballet for All Kids gives out almost $2,000 in scholarships each month. We’re always looking to keep our doors open and pay the rent.

Becoming certified is another you can support Ballet for All Kids. You can help grow the program and bring it to other areas.

Just volunteer if you are in the area. We always love, love, love volunteers! We’re going to need volunteers in New York but we always need volunteers in New York City and Los Angeles and Virginia.

Lastly, sharing information about our program that there is a classical program out there.

What advice would you give to anyone who wants to become a ballet dancer?

If you love something and you are passionate about it then you need to follow it.

I never did become a prima ballerina but I’m in a ballet studio every week teaching hundreds of kids.

In some ways I’m still following the dream of becoming a Prima Ballerina even though I am not that.

Joseph Campbell who was an anthropology professor at Columbia University would tell his students “follow your bliss.”

I 100% agree with that. If you follow whatever you are passionate about, whether it’s salsa dancing or whatever, it will bloom. You may not be the best salsa dancer in the world but who cares!

If it makes you happy it will find a way to manifest itself in your life in a gazillion ways you had no idea.

 

More information

Visit Ballet for All Kids.

Donate

You can make a donation to help provide financial aide to parents and allow children to continue the joy of learning ballet. You can make a donation here.

Volunteer

You can volunteer to help children during ballet classes every week. More information can be found here.

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Afterthoughts

Share a kind message of support in the comments below for Bonnie, the dance teachers, volunteers and students at Ballet for All Kids.

 

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2 thoughts on “How this ballet school is making a difference in the lives of typical and special needs kids is incredible

  1. This is a fabulous article about a fantastic organization that we are blessed to be a part of!
    My 14 yr. old daughter, Hannah has been taking classes at Ballet For All Kids for about 6 yrs. now. She has mild cerebral palsy and developmental delays due to a lack of oxygen at birth. She has made tremendous gains in strength, flexibility, balance and social and emotional growth as well as intellectual growth and development. She is a happy and confident young girl who LOVES dancing and being a part of Ballet For All Kids! We, as a family are forever grateful for this organization that provides opportunities for ALL kids!
    With much gratitude,
    Vicky

    1. Yay, go Hannah!!! Thank you Vicky for sharing your story. Just as Bonnie has said “special needs kids deserve the same opportunities too because you never know what could spark.” I want to wish Hannah and your family that each one of your days will be was wonderful as you all are 😀

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