Dance Therapy for Intellectual or Developmental Disabilities

Dance as OT for Children and Adults with Intellectual or Developmental Disabilities. GettyImages

Recently I had the opportunity to get acquainted with an amazing organization in Buffalo, NY: danceability. After speaking with the school’s founders, Robin Bishop & Christine Dwyer, I felt I had to share what they are doing and how it has impacted so many individuals for the better in Western New York.

Danceability was founded in 2007 and offers instruction in ballet, tap, jazz, hip-hop, creative movement, and fitness to individuals with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities of all ages (youngest this year is 3 and the oldest is 73!).

The studio began with 64 students and now has over 140 students with two studio spaces. Dancers are paired with a volunteer from the community who attends class with them weekly, culminating for most dancers in a final show in May. Over 90 volunteers give at least one hour per week to danceability. All instructors at danceability have a dance background in addition to special education, physical therapy, social work, and occupational therapy.

What does a typical dance class look like?

Classes are structured with the dancer in mind, and each class is often quite different from the next. However, classes often begin with a warm-up, then move to a stretch, teaching of steps, a combination, and a free dance. Each class builds upon the next, reviewing materials taught throughout the year. Dancers at danceability have a range of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities including but not limited to Down syndrome, autism spectrum disorders, cerebral palsy, Angelman syndrome, etc.


What therapeutic advantages are created through participation in danceability? 

While danceability does not claim to be a dance therapy program, dancers gain many therapeutic advantages from their time spent at danceability.

First, dancers gain confidence and self-esteem; they are put in an environment with their peers that encourages them to wiggle and move, be silly, and excel at something they may not have tried before.

Additionally, dancers often discover a way to express themselves through improved social interactions with peers and through movement, resulting in improvements in behavior and a gain in friendships and social support. Most recently, one dancer’s mother shared that her son has gained a significant number of words since he started dancing.

Dancers also gain physical advantages from their time spent at danceability. Instructors with physical and occupational therapy backgrounds state that they recognize improvements in mobility, balance, coordination, posture, body awareness and flexibility. In a future article, we will discuss the sensory benefits that dancers with Sensory Processing Disorders experience throughout their time dancing with danceability.

Parents and caregivers also gain a therapeutic advantage at danceability.

While a dancer spends time in class, parents and caregivers spend time in the waiting room sharing resources, giving social support, and creating lasting bonds. In fact, its mission statement includes ‘promoting physical, social, and emotional wellness in a family-focused, peaceful environment’. Most caregivers maintain these relationships outside of the dance studio, resulting in improved social supports for both themselves and their dancers.

Do you have someone in your life that could benefit from a similar program? If you are lucky enough to live near Buffalo, New York, I encourage you to check them out. Otherwise, there are many dance studios throughout the United States providing dance classes to individuals with OT needs. A simple google search could yield promising results in your area like this (in Maryland) or this (in the Chicago area)! 

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