Children with cerebral palsy improve physical abilities through dance

Upstate patient Miracle Thompson, 5, dances with Jowonio occupational therapist Lisa Neville, and is supported by Nottingham High School student and dancer, Bela Harris. The ballet program is sponsored by the Madeline Cote fund. Photo by Susan Kahn.

Upstate patient Miracle Thompson, 5, dances with Jowonio occupational therapist Lisa Neville, and is supported by Nottingham High School student and dancer, Bela Harris. The ballet program is sponsored by the Madeline Cote fund. Photo by Susan Kahn.

Like many preschoolers, Marley Aberdeen was enthralled with the mouse, Angelina Ballerina from the series of children’s books. So it was easy to enlist her participation in a pilot project last year exploring how ballet could help children with cerebral palsy.

Her mother brought her in pink leotard and tights to Jowonio School, where teenage dancers from the Syracuse City School District volunteered to help Marley and other children enjoy the benefits of dance.

Layout 1It’s a program created by Nienke Dosa, MD, a developmental pediatrician at Upstate, and Lisa Neville, an occupational therapist at Jowonio. They were inspired by Citali Lopez, PhD, an exercise scientist at the Rehab Institute of Chicago who gave a presentation at Upstate last year, attended by physicians, dance instructors and physical therapists from throughout Central New York. 

“In ballet, dancers learn positions that are held for eight counts, then four counts, then two counts until they become fluid movement,” Dosa explains. Her patients are children with physical disabilities such as cerebral palsy and spina bifida. She says dance is a good way for them to experience movement and motor learning and to be part of a group. 

“Motor learning is about repetition. We don’t sit down at a piano and play music right away. We practice our scales until finger movements become second nature. Same thing with ballet. We give children with cerebral palsy the opportunity to practice postures and for postures to turn into movements. Structured movement in a social setting is beneficial for any child.”

Many dance studios offer creative movement classes for youngsters before formal dance classes begin. The classes for children with cerebral palsy are a step between the two, helping the children to become comfortable with movement and helping their muscles to strengthen. 

Because many of the children do not stand independently, two dancing assistants are required per child. Neville and Dosa developed a workbook full of photographs to teach high school dancers who are willing to volunteer, and they formed a partnership with the Syracuse City School District. Students from Nottingham High School walk to nearby Jowonio after school one day a week to dance with the children with cerebral palsy.

Cheryl Darby admits that she was unsure how ballet would benefit her niece, Miracle Thompson, 5. “I was skeptical. I was not sold that it would help her so much. But boy, what a change,” she says, explaining how Miracle can balance on one leg and hold the other up to form a P. Ballerinas call the move a passe. It’s quite an accomplishment for a little girl who struggles to walk.

Marley’s mom, Stephanie Pearman noticed improvement in her daughter, now 6. Before, when she sat on the floor, she would bend both knees backward. Now she keeps one straight. “She’d got what we call ‘dynamic’ tone. If she’s reaching for something, the tone in her arm will stiffen up.

“What ballet will help her to do is calm down, and it becomes more of a fluid movement. It’s almost like she can quiet down that tone with her brain when she does ballet.”

Plus, says Pearman, “it’s fun. She enjoys it.”

Listen to a HealthLink on Air interview with Dr. Dosa and Lisa Neville

Look through an album of photographs by Susan Kahn

See the story in Upstate Health magazine

View the video of photographs by Susan Kahn

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