Tuesday, February 10, 2009

7 Questions For...a pediatric physical therapist who runs Dancing Dreams

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Joann Ferrera is a physical therapist who runs a program in Bayside, New York, called Dancing Dreams. It's just for kids with physical challenges; many of her students, who range in age from 3 to 16, have cerebral palsy. I am amazed by her; you can't watch this video and not tear up. She recently answered a few questions for me.

So, what made you start Dancing Dreams?
I am a pediatric physical therapist. During PT sessions some patients would dress up and we'd pretend-play. One day a little girl who had on a tutu said to me, "I wish I could be a ballerina like my friends." That made me think, why not?

Can you explain how dancing can be therapeutic to kids with physical challenges?
Any movement is therapeutic. We have seen improvements in balance and movement. It never ceases to amaze me to watch the dancers on stage and the pride they have in their individual accomplishments, be it raising an arm or taking a step. One of our dancers stood independently for the first time during our recital.

How can kids who don't walk participate in dancing?
Our dancers are each paired with a helper, a trained high-school student, to assist during class. Some dancers are in wheelchairs and they move within and with their chair. Some stand with support for some dances and sit for others.

How can a parent do dance therapy at home?
Music is a great motivator! Don't try to be too structured—allow your child to interpret the music and move in whatever way they choose. We use lots of props—scarves, wands and tutus are great! Just remember, keep it fun. It isn't about quality, it's about moving. I find that in general, when kids start to move they will be motivated to work on what they need to, and accomplish what they want to.

What kind of music is good to play?
I use a wide variety, from the "Hokey Pokey" for the youngest group to "Celebration" to "Rock Around The Clock" as well as traditional ballet music. I have a Laura Hausman ballet music CD that I like but I really vary the music—I find that different children respond better to different music. I also like to vary the music as the slower songs are better for controlled movements—keeping the body still while just moving the arms—and the quicker good for quick balance adjustments.

Many people reading this will not have access to your program—do you know of any similar ones around the country?
As far as I know, this program is unique in the set up and the fact that I am a physical therapist. We have recently become a nonprofit and hope to bring the program to more cities in the near future.

What's your absolute best advice for parents of children with special needs?
Every child is unique. Find your child's passion and embrace it whatever it is. From my thirty years of experience as a therapist, I can tell you that is the key to motivation. Find team members who support your child's (and your) goals and who are receptive to your needs. Don't be afraid to question—but take the time to listen to the answers.

For info about the upcoming recital in April (admission is free), visit Dancing Dreams.


  1. What a great program and an inspirational woman!


  2. Outstanding.

    See http://www.kinetickidstx.org/ - nfp run by two PTs, have dance and cheerleading programs.

    Also, the book "Ballerina Dreams" - inspiring.

  3. I live in Colorado and our local rec center just added a Special Needs Dance Class run by a PT thru the therapy rec department. I think it is something new that is starting in the therapy community. I can't wait for my little girl to go. She has wanted to go to ballet just like her typical twin for years and now we can. :)

  4. You were right - I teared up. What a wonderful program - I hope it will give other people out there ideas.

  5. I found an article about her program a few days after Avery's stroke diagnosis...and I've been in awe (and searching for ANYTHING similar in our area) ever since. I wish there were more people like this woman!

  6. Ellen, thank you so much for posting this! I saw a story about this a few months ago, and yes it moved me to tears. Perhaps we could get a couple of wigs for Max and Daniel, throw a couple of tutus on them, and sneak them into the class? OK, maybe not, and Daniel is all boy and so would have to be dragged kicking and screaming to ballet class, but the class sounds so incredible that I'm almost tempted. Those little girls look so proud of themselves, and so beautiful - oh goodness, again with the water works!
    Anyway, I really believe in recreational therapy. After all, why have our kids spend ours learning to use their muscles if they don't get to put their hard work to use? Daniel started playing hockey this year, and it has been great therapy for him. He also plays drums, which is... loud, and also great therapy for his left hand/arm. While we have him in mainstream programs right now, there are some really good recreational programs for kids with developmental differences in our area - Little League, flag football, basketball, soccer, hockey, and others. I like knowing that they're there if he needs them, and also for other kids who otherwise wouldn't have the chance to participate. There is absolutely no reason why our kids should have to sit on the sidelines - they deserve to be in there playing like any other child!

  7. Last year I bought the book "Ballerina Dreams" for all our therapists for the holidays.

    I saw the girls live -- in concert-- at the "Women Who Cares" luncheon hosted by UCP, NYC each year. These girls were so phenominal. There was not a dry eye in the place and I was literally sobbing into my wine at this upscale luncheon. What a site!

  8. Wow, you guys added good info. I totally agree, there should be more programs like this. And Johanna, the thought of Max and Daniel in tutus just put the biggest smile on my face. You are so right about our kids and recreation. Max plays soccer sometimes, I need to get more sports in his life.

    Debbie, that is a genius idea for therapist gifts.

    Joann, who runs Dancing Dreams, wants me to go to the recital in April, I'm going to try and make it and of course, I will take a million pictures.

  9. And for the boys... There is always karate!!! Give the right instructor, arts like karate and judo can do great things for kids with CP or kids who may be blind.

    Our local paper is doing a story about (yours truly) to promote visually disabled judo. But I'd be remits if I didn't mention our friend Cole who has CP and participate in karate. Though Cole has little use of his legs, that don't stop him!!! He's the only disabled kid in his class... :-)

  10. Wow, great story--thanks for sharing.

  11. This is so cool. The Joffrey Ballet has a part for a child in a wheel chair every year, this year the part was danced by a girl with Cerebral Palsy: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/story/2008/12/08/ST2008120803709.html I thought that is an interesting addition.

  12. Hi,
    Thank you for all the comments. Dancing Dreams - the dancers and parents are so special to me. This has been an amazing experience. I am so proud of our program.
    Our recital is Sunday April 26th at 1pm - Mary Louis Academy, 176-21 Wexford Terrace, Jamaica Estates, Queens, NY.

    The recital is free and I would like to extend an invitation to all of you to join us in our celebration of achievement!


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    Help, please. All recommend this program to effectively advertise on the Internet, this is the best program!


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