20 March 2010

Just dance! Local dance studio offers adaptive dance

For Sophie White, Saturdays are truly something to look forward to.

The pint-sized pixie wakes up early to pull together her ensemble for the day – a black leotard, pink skirt, leggings and a pair of black ballet shoes.

With her short dark hair pulled back into a barrette, Sophie is anxious to leave her Chaska home and head to dance class. But this isn’t any old dance class she’s off to. Sophie’s dance class is for children with special needs. She is one of 20 students that cheerfully fill the bright studio space at River Valley Dance Academy each Saturday afternoon.

Sophie’s mom Tracy White said that the adaptive dance class has made a big difference for her daughter, who lives with autism.

“She didn’t used to be able to cross mid-line,” said White. “She used to fall down all the time.”

After seven years in various classes at River Valley Dance Academy, White said Sophie’s coordination and mobility is much improved. In class, she can pirouette with the best of them.


The success of the adaptive dance class is a dream come true for studio owner and instructor Jocelyn Braudt.

“I always wanted to open up a school for the arts for children with special needs,” she said.

But Braudt, who majored in therapeutic recreation in college and taught dance classes for students with spina bifida and osteogenesis imperfecta, realized upon moving to Minnesota that a special needs school couldn’t support itself. So instead, she opened a dance studio in Chaska and incorporated programming for special needs within the school.

Braudt was intimately familiar with the power of dance for those with physical challenges. As a “very pigeon-toed” 4-year-old, Braudt’s mother had once asked her pediatrician how to resolve her condition. The doctor advised signing her up for ballet. It worked like a charm and Braudt has been dancing ever since.

Eleven years ago, Braudt started her Chaska program with a single special needs dancer. Michaela Powers was a girl in a wheelchair that wasn’t about to let cerebral palsy keep her from dancing. “She took in a typical dance class and we adapted the moves,” said Braudt.

The next year, Braudt expanded to offer the first dedicated adaptive dance class for those with physical disabilities. At the time, she had two students with cerebral palsy. The second year, Braudt had three students in wheelchairs. When year three rolled around, Braudt had expanded the program to offer a creative movement class for those with developmental disabilities like autism.

“Then I decided to have all the kids in one class,” she said.

Braudt said that ultimately she wanted to offer a class that would help to “build confidence, provide recreation and socialization.”

“We’re creating the same experience any other kid can have,” she said.

White said that one of the reasons Sophie loves the class is that it allows her to dance, just like her big sister.


Today, Braudt’s Saturday afternoon class has 20 students – including veterans like Sophie and Powers. They come to Chaska from all around the metro – places like Blaine, Delano, Shakopee, and Minnetonka.

The class also features 21 peer helpers – students from her other dance classes that have volunteered their help.

Braudt loves to see the interaction between the students and the peer helpers – many of which have known each other since they were little.

“They develop this great friendship,” she said.

The class is so popular that there is a waiting list of people who want to volunteer as peer helpers, Braudt said. “There is a huge desire to be a part of something more meaningful.”

“It’s just rewarding,” said Sara O’Konek, 17, of Carver. O’Konek is a graduate of the adaptive dance class who now serves as a peer helper.

“It’s my favorite part of the week,” said Ali Witte, 17, of Chaska. “I’m just beaming when I leave here.”

Seventeen-year-old Taylor Troyak, of Minnetrista, said that working with special needs “might even be something I want to do in college.”

That’s music to Braudt’s ears. “We try hard for the studio to not be about the trophy and the princess thing,” she said. “We try to educate the whole person.”

“Each of us has weaknesses,” she continued. “Each of us has abilities and disabilities.”

The differences seem to disappear when the music cues up, however. Whether they are practicing ballet positions to classical music, shaking purple pom poms to RuPaul, or twirling to Miley Cyrus’s “The Climb,” the shared smiles are hard to miss.

“The program runs itself,” said Braudt. “I just push play.”

-Mollee Francisco, staff writer

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