At the Dance Education Laboratory of the 92nd Street Y in New York City, teachers advocate for dance for all children. Nobody embodies that idea more than faculty member Diane Duggan, who has been a dance therapist and expert on teaching children with physical, cognitive and emotional disabilities for more than 40 years. Currently juggling her roles as DEL teacher and NYU professor, Duggan teaches aspiring dance therapists and educators the ins and outs of working with disabled children.
“You have to start by working with their strengths,” says Duggan. “You don’t start with ‘this is where you should be.’ It’s ‘OK, this is where you are, and this is how we’ll proceed.’ You have to be able to see their strengths, because often children with disabilities don’t know what’s good about themselves.” Duggan provides movement prompts, observes the children’s responses and then expands on what they’re doing.
Classroom management is key to Duggan’s success. She says there are four main reasons that children act out in class—to get attention, to escape, because something feels good or to get something they want. In her dance therapy seminars, she provides strategies for working with those four motivations rather than in conflict with them. Many times it comes down to quick thinking and a change of plan. “When I started working with my teenagers in a circle, they kept making lines. So I said, ‘OK, line up,'” she explains. “They didn’t want to see each other. That was the optimal formation for them.”
Dancers are at an advantage when working with disabled children. “There are things that we have available to us: the barre—you’re anchored in space, music—you’re anchored in time and you’re organizing yourself in relationship to others on the beat,” Duggan says. “These are very powerful tools that are part of our repertoire.” DT
TO WARM UP: a sun salutation to stretch before class.
IN-CLASS PROPS: “I may use floor spots, hoops, beanbags or stretchable fabric to show students how to use these with children. Mostly I just use movement and music.”
Photo by Carla Flores, courtesy of Duggan; Thinkstock (3)