Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Ballroom Dance: Powerful Steps Beyond Autism

~by Nancy LaPierre

(Adapted from the letter ‘He Danced His Way from Disability to Ability’ by Victoria Marin)

“Ballroom dancing proved to be the ideal activity for my child.  It provided the opportunity to develop social and communication skills as well as more fluid and coordinated movements . . . . . a sense of self awareness as well as self esteem.” ~ Victoria Marin, mother of Aiden and author of Aiden’s Waltz

Autism rates have shot up 78% in the last decade, announces CNN’s headline, a disturbing footnote to March’s report by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention that 1 of every 88 American children is now affected by the disorder.  

Therefore, Victoria Marin, a dedicated Fred Astaire dance student at the Westwood, New Jersey studio, couldn’t have picked a better time to write her book, Aiden’s Waltz. At once a sensitive and inspiring children’s story and a tribute to our field,  Marin’s words testify to the power of ballroom dance to free her own son from many of the physical, emotional and social challenges of his disability. 

Marin, who holds a degree in Occupational Therapy and is the mother of five children, published this chronicle of her “out of the box approach to raising a child with special needs” in February this year. “These misunderstood children have suffered from difficulty in making friends and handling relationships with peers,” she wrote in her recent letter to us. Aiden’s mother is amazed by just how far her son has come through his dancing journey.  From a boy who used to do nothing but watch as other children played soccer, she reports, “Aiden rose from the shackles of autism to dance with the grace and elegance of a swan across the ballroom dance floor.”

Marin is convinced of the benefits of ballroom dance, especially when it comes to helping kids like Aiden, who are, her book teaches, “like every other child who needs love, care and respect.”  She credits ballroom dance with “a holistic approach to dealing with the challenges of autism,” and attests that the benefits to Aiden have been multi-dimensional and inspiring, reflecting physical, social, emotional and cognitive growth.

Prior to his dance lessons, she says, Aiden, like other autistic children, experienced great difficulty with recreational activities, such as being on a sports team and any other situations where initiating and maintaining peer relationships is necessary.  However, through dance, “my son’s communication skills developed to where he could initiate a conversation with his dance partner.  After continued participation, his communication skills blossomed to where he could approach other dancers and ask them to dance.”
FADS instructor, Larisa with Aiden and his sister, Laura

Autistic students gain confidence in themselves and others through ballroom dance, for it requires that “the child learns to let go of their fears and anxieties and trust the movements of their partner,” Marin explains.  The constant contact with a partner it demands also helps overcome the distrust of physical closeness that often comes with autism. “In addition to learning the steps,” she explains, “dancing requires the participants to respect physical boundaries, maintain position and posturing and conform to the social rules of the ballroom,” all lessons that strengthen areas of weakness most autistic children face.

“Another fascinating component to ballroom dancing is the classical music,” she reports.  “New research has noted the role of music in facilitating self-expression, creativity and sociability in children.  Classical music appears to reduce stress while increasing the ability to concentrate.  Muscle tone relaxes and the heart rate slows which causes the mind to be receptive to learning.  A positive outlook or increased self esteem often leads to improvements in the creative thinking process.” And, she adds, the effect classical music has on the anatomy of the ear actually “stimulates brain activity.”

“The dance can be viewed as a dynamic conversation between partners where eye contact is necessary, external sensory stimuli is processed, gross and fine motor movements are coordinated and a relationship between partners is developed,” says Marin. To her great joy, Aiden overcame the seemingly-insurmountable hurdles autism erects in each of these areas through learning ballroom dance.

“In my experience, ballroom dancing helped my son to emerge as a young boy who no longer felt ‘different’ from the other children.  The world of ballroom dancing opened the door to a fresh and innovative sport.  Aiden beamed with self confidence which he gained from being a leading partner on the dance floor.  In time, his coordination improved which helped build his self esteem.” 

“While Aiden still is not considered a social butterfly,” she adds, “his beautiful ocean blue eyes look right at you when he speaks,” a directness that autism usually inhibits. “Ballroom dancing provided the necessary tools for my son to emerge from his own darkness and dance before the entire student body.”

Marin’s experience has made her faith in ballroom dance unshakeable:   “Given the support and opportunities,” she now knows, “all individuals with special needs possess talents as well as the ability to achieve!”

Thank you to Renata Sowul, Manager at FADS Westwood, N.J., for introducing us to Aiden, Ms. Marin, and her book.  Ms. Marin and two of her children are warmly welcomed students of Renata’s studio.