May 08, 2006

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.

Posted on May 08, 2006