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A sticky story of 'special' from the NY Times

Jesse the K writes,

And we thought perhaps the New York Times was making progress?

The nominal topic is a ballet class for very young girls with mobility impairments: Given a Chance to Be Little Ballerinas, and Smiling Right Down to Their Toes (the multimedia version features the voices of the dancers, expressing what all dancers feel: the joy of moving with music).

The article is as sticky as an overheated basket of "special" Easter chocolates. You may need to inject some long-acting insulin before you read the next paragraph, which reporter Corey Kilgannon seems to have learned how to write at the Tiny Tim J-School:

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.

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.

Isn't "infinite patience" required of all ballet teachers? Or are these "special" teachers unwilling to provide the spine-tingling criticism that's fundamental to ballet (even if the spine ain't straight)?

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.

No, actually, they'll probably spend hours each week on a gym mat at PT or OT. They'll be very fortunate, however, to find it fun, as they're pushed to the point of pain to conform to the normate body. And although Corey Kilgannon doesn't seem to know it, tag and hide-and-seek can be played by wheelchair users and crutch users.

There are many reasons this article is frustrating, but the No. 1 reason stems from its unquestioned parroting of the bigoted attitudes that get imposed on these little girls' bodies.

Here's ballerina Veronica's mother: "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."

Here's ballerina Sophia's mother: "I could never put her in a regular class because she falls easily and no one has the patience for her."

What's really being reported here, seems to me, is a story of ballet schools creating socially-imposed barriers for these little girls, but it doesn't seem Kilgannon is aware of that at all. Yes, the girls' bodies have an impairment -- something atypical in their bodies -- but it's the ballet schools that create the disability. The problem with them dancing comes from the schools drawing an arbitrary line on the coordination continuum -- a line they fall below.

Almost no little girl in ballet school has the magic combination of talent and great teaching that leads to a performing career. Yet somewhere below this is the "normate" line. Even really lousy little ballet dancers are allowed to go to normal ballet school. And then there are these little girls, labeled "special."

Because Kilgannon misses this central point, I don't trust that she has conveyed the moms' words precisely, either: Does Veronica's mother teach her about disability by telling her, "You can't do what the other girls do" because of their prejudice? Or is Veronica's mom teaching her that the problem is in her body, because it's not like the other girls'? I can't tell. We just don't know.

Kilgannon continues,

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.

Given the reporter's approach, I suspected she was a dance critic. Yet Corey Kilgannon is on the Metropolitan desk, serving the City/Regional beat with a focus on Queens. Some of her other stories (behind the Times' firewall, of course) are great: 3 Perspectives On Immigration, From the Inside is a nuanced look at immigration issues; An Old Profession That's New to Doing Taxesis a non-judgemental, down-to-business report on a tax workshop for sex workers.

It's not the atypical nature of our bodies or minds but the disabilities in her head that prevents Kilgannon from suspending her prejudices when dealing with us.

It's especially frustrating because this article has been wildly popular, as evidenced by the "most emailed articles" list, where on its publication date -- Friday -- it was in second place.


Something the author didn't seem to understand, besides what you point out, is that GOING TO DANCE CLASS IMPROVES MOVEMENT. Doink. Use it or lose it.

Thanks for the critical eye this article needed, I was so grateful to see them not saying "woe to the devastated families" that I missed the rest of it. Like the garbage about hide and seek. Ha.

I taught in one of these dance programs once, only for kids on the autism spectrum. Our 3 students needed one on one attention to master the steps...but 2/3 of our helpers/individual models/whatever we were are also autistic. And last I checked 2 of our 3 kids transitioned into class with allllll the other kids. One needed to learn the attention, the other needed more motor skill attention (and look at that. the girl who couldn't walk on tiptoes is in mainstream dance class now).

Yeah. thanks for nitpicking. It needed it. *is kicking self for missing all those points*


As a trained journalist myself, I think that has to be the worst story ever (except for one or two of my own "last-minute" articles). :c)

I really think people don't want truth anymore; they prefer inspirational fiction. That is only going to make our job more difficult.

An uninhabited island in the Pacific sounds really good about right now.

Don't kick yourself too hard, Kassiane. I too saw the story; I didn't even read it, but let Jesse do ALL the work for me (smile)!

"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."

Um, news flash? They're KIDS. Disabled or not, five-year-olds are not supposed to be "Lithe," "Perfect," and "Refined." Not even in NYC, not even if you spend big bucks on ballet lessons. Sheesh.

Just say no to the cult of perfection.

Don't you think you are a little TOO critical of this article. I see the article as being a plus for disabled young ladies. And in PT or OT aren't we pushed to our limit? Are there not "normal people" there getting what they need for some injury? I do not think she is prejudiced. I think she is trying to show, that the disabled are being given an opportunity to join "normal" activities. And I know, you would prefer these young ladies be placed in "regular ballet classes". ME TOO but this is a start. Who knows maybe one of this young ladies will become a teacher of dancing? I find hope and possibilities in this story!

No Angelica,

They are not being given an opportunity to join "normal" activities - they are being segregated into their own program based on supposed lack of ability. Now if they were being included with all the other girls, I would be applauding it.

I did something very difficult this year. I gave up baseball - the sport I've loved to watch for two decades - because I coached Little League last year and saw how discriminatory the sport is.

I'm tired of playing alternative versions of these games and activities where the able-bodied bring it down to "our level". No more. We need to support games that stress cooperation among team members of varying levels of ability (all levels -not just the top two-thirds like Little League).

Gymnastics is no different and that class is a sham based from pure segregation - "But this studio holds one special class a week" - And why can't the girls with disabilities participate with the other girls? Because they are different, because they might be teased because they aren't lithe? Maybe the girls and teachers without disabilities might learn to appreciate beauty and grace in something other than the prescribed forms.

No, Angelica, MJ was on target with her assessment and we as persons with disabilities need to abandon following these sports that stress physical or mental strength until everyone is included as part of the team, and as part of society...

Y'know, all these comments are great -- why not make them where it really counts? letters@nytimes.com - just be sure to cite the name and date of the article: Given a Chance to Be Little Ballerinas, and Smiling Right Down to Their Toes (May 5).

...As a person with a disability (autism counts too ya know), I don't think abandoning a sport that I'M GOOD AT, that I BEAT MY NT AGE PEERS AT, is the answer. A poster mentioned PT and OT...for some of us, because of states sucking or whatever, what we do recreationally IS our PT and OT (aikido and gymnastics, respectively, for me. 23 and finally getting that whole crossing the midline thing).

I hate when disability discussions get to the point where people forget it's not all wheelchairs, braces and crutches. For some of us it's sensory issues, not reading social signs, forgetting how to talk at random, and constantly being kicked out of the disability advocacy stuff for "not LOOKING disabled". Happened to me, blogged about it, can provide a link.

The general world wants to think WE AS A WHOLE (people with disabilities) can't do "normal" stuff like sports. I, for one, refuse to allow that sticker to be placed on me. An accomodation on the field/in the gym/at the studio is no different from an accomodation at a job. Yes, it should be inclusive, but there's that whole Least Restrictive Environment concept (not always with nondisabled peers depending on the disability) and, frankly, we have to prove we can do it before they'll beleive we can do it WITH THEM. Not right, not fair, but that's how life is.

I think this time my URL will be my blog, not my website, since I've written on several of these issues before...

i think this article was striking in it's point of view. i was in ballet class while 9 or 10, and my mom did it so my legs would have the opportunity to be exercised and i would have fun...it beat the shit out of the nightly toe and leg exercises i had to do...i read this thru and i know all the buzz words and attitudes everyone here hates and i still feel the article gave a valuable point of view.

i thought the photos were terrific. little pink bodies with braces and such, who cared? the kids were having fun and their braces were as natural as their tutus.

sometimes this community gets their panties in a wad over *everything*.

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