Young physical rehab patients at NYU get a little ballet therapy

Ballet dancer Savannah Lowery gives a demonstration of how ballet steps can be adapted to upper body movements to children at NYU’s Rusk Rehabilitation Center.

Ballet dancer Savannah Lowery gives a demonstration of how ballet steps can be adapted to upper body movements to children at NYU’s Rusk Rehabilitation Center. (Photos by Maria Rocha-Buschel)

By Maria Rocha-Buschel

For the young patients undergoing treatment at the pediatric unit at NYU’s Rusk Rehabilitation Center, the opportunity to experience “The Nutcracker” is a new one. That is, experience by learning some of the steps from a dancer from the New York City Ballet, as opposed to being merely an audience member.

For the young patients undergoing treatment at the pediatric unit at NYU’s Rusk Rehabilitation Center, the opportunity to experience “The Nutcracker” is a new one. That is, experience by learning some of the steps from a dancer from the New York City Ballet, as opposed to being merely an audience member.

As part of a program hosted by the NYC Ballet, soloist Savannah Lowery visited a small group of patients at the East 17th Street center earlier this month, going over the story of the timeless ballet and helping the kids adapt the steps into upper body movements since many are confined to wheelchairs.

“We focus on the upper body,” Lowery said. “We’re telling a story with movement like charades. Kids always like the games and sometimes they make up better versions than I can come up with while trying to do the choreography sitting down.”

NYCB’s associate education director Meghan Kent said that ballets like Midsummer Night’s Dream and the Nutcracker are the best for these workshops because they’re story-based. Although the organization’s education department frequently hosts similar workshops for both kids and adults, Kent said that the program with Rusk is unique because it’s the only one held off-site.

The program at Rusk with the NYCB is relatively new but has been taking place twice a year for the last few years, with “Midsummer Night’s Dream” the focal point for the spring program and “The Nutcracker” the focus for the holiday season.

All the patients in the 16-bed unit get a chance to participate and rather than just a one-time opportunity, they get to meet a dancer during multiple workshops and often are permitted to make a trip to Lincoln Center to see the ballet in person if they receive medical clearance. One young student at the recent workshop was just three years old, and the oldest participant was age 10.

Lisa Delguidice, one of the child life and recreation therapists at the institute, said that patients can be at Rusk from two weeks to a few months and are there for various reasons, including physical rehab, speech therapy and verbal communication rehab, and they treat patients with congenital conditions from birth like cerebral palsy, to kids who have been in traumatic accidents, have spinal chord injuries or are recovering from oncology diagnoses, as well as non-traumatic brain injuries and non-traumatic spinal chord injuries.

The first workshop in the series, which in this cycle was held on November 23, is led by NYCB teaching artist Mari Meade Montoya, who teaches the kids about basic ballet terms. Lowery joined Montoya in two additional workshops to talk about the story of the ballet.

The recent visit from Lowery this month was the final session in this cycle, allowing the kids to follow up on what they learned at the previous workshops and what they saw in the show, which some patients from the unit were able to attend on November 30.

Lowery, who has been dancing since she was three, is well-versed in “The Nutcracker.” In previous years, she danced up to five different roles in one season, although not all in the same show, and she currently dances in two different roles. While performing, she said that the dewdrop portion is the most satisfying, but coming to the rehab center has been rewarding in a different way.

Patients confined to wheelchairs participate in a movement workshop led by Lowery.

Patients confined to wheelchairs participate in a movement workshop led by Lowery.

“I never get to see their faces when I’m up on stage so it’s a nice way to see what kind of impact we have when we interact with the kids,” she said. “Watching them get excited about the characters is so much fun and they all follow the story perfectly.”

Kent said that when NYCB first started working with Rusk, they recruited specific dancers in the company who had previously done children’s programs, who like working with children and who have a “mature presence.” The program has gained popularity among dancers, though, Kent said, and noted that some have begun approaching her about participating.

Lowery got in on the program early and although this is only her second time participating, she said that Kent approached her for the first set of workshops a couple years ago with “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and she was eager to return.

“We sometimes take it for granted and get into this mindset of always doing it a certain way so this creative choreography is a new way of looking at the dances,” she said of coming up with the children’s workshops at Rusk. “I feel like they teach me more than I teach them.”

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