At first, no one seems to know how to act like a snake.
As occupational therapist Mallory Lanier lies on the floor, she implores the little girls in leotards and tutus to follow her lead.
“On your tummies,” she urges them, as the girls move forward. “Girls, slither and hiss like a snake.” Most more or less seem to follow her lead wiggling around. The gaggle of 3- to 5-year-old girls looks pretty much like any other group of children in a ballet class, with one important difference. Lanier created Steps of Grace so that special-needs children and especially their parents would feel comfortable taking on ballet and dance.
As a pediatric occupational therapist and an assistant professor at Augusta University, Lanier also grew up with a love of dance and teaching dance and ballet, which is how the mission of Steps of Grace came about.
“It was such a good opportunity to merge those two skills and combine them into an opportunity for children with special needs to participate in an activity that children without special needs are able to participate in,” she said.
In many ways, it is like a typical dance or ballet class but with many more experienced volunteers in the class than would normally be there to provide individual attention, Lanier said.
“There is someone there to work with the children, whether it is on balance, or attention or whatever they need extra help on, they have somebody there that is able to do that,” she said.
Having her expertise with these children also helps ease the minds of parents like Cin Wiltshire about bringing her daughter Nicole, 4, to the class.
“She needs a special type of teacher” who can work with Nicole at her pace, Wiltshire said. “Mallory being an occupational therapist, she knows that.”
It also removes the threat that a child might be mocked by other children for being different, as happened to one child in the program in another dance class, Lanier said.
“It’s good that they have a place they don’t have to worry about that,” she said.
Most of all, it is about having fun while going through the steps. In the space of one class, the girls get to shift from “happy cats” to butterflies, get to play with scarves and tambourines and get to don tiaras for the “princess walk.”
“We’ve got new crowns,” Lanier said, as she passed out the glittery tiaras. “Aren’t they beautiful?”
The tiaras seem to bring something out in the girls, like Payton Wiggins, 5, who beaming ear to ear gets up before the group, gracefully stretching out her arms as she twirls before the group.
“Beautiful job, Payton,” Lanier tells her.
The exercise is exactly what Payton likes, said her mother, Alyssa Howard.
“She loves being the center of attention,” Howard said. “So when they get to do that one by one she loves that. She does it at home. She has a crown. She will do all of her ballet moves for everybody.”
Payton was born with a congenital disorder called Hurler syndrome that prevents her body from producing enzymes needed to break down long-chain sugars. It required her to get a bone marrow transplant when she was 18 months old, and for a year she couldn’t be around other children or other people for fear of getting sick. Payton tried to take another ballet class at age 3 and didn’t like it, Howard said. But she loves this one, and through it she has become inseparable with one of the other little girls, Reese Stansfield.
“Ever since they met, they always say they are each other’s best friend,” Howard said. “It’s so cute.”
As a former dancer herself, Wiltshire said the class helps her realize one of her hopes for Nicole.
“Every mom, especially previous dancers, want their little girl to take ballet and tap. I had wondered if it were even possible for Nicole,” Wiltshire said. “And when I found out about this program, I thought, ‘Let’s give it a try.’ ”
Now starting her second year, she can already see a difference in Nicole, and it has spilled over into their home life.
“The more she does the ballet, the more we can see that she’s changed,” Wiltshire said. “Just the other night, she was spinning in circles and we had not seen her do that before.”
Nicole is their first “differently abled” child, and it has been a different journey with her than with the three other children, Wiltshire said.
“I realized all the little things I didn’t necessarily pay attention to with the other kids,” she said. “You just take them for granted. We’ve seen Nicole’s progression. It’s like a new flower blooming almost every day.”
As a therapist, Lanier has been with these families, and she sees them as they go from appointment to appointment that focuses on problems. The class is a chance to get away from that, she said.
“With therapy and with doctor’s appointments, the focus typically is on what’s wrong,” Lanier said. “With programs like this, they get to come and have fun and learn new skills and be celebrated for that.”
And that is her reward in this mission. “To be able to offer an opportunity for their child to come and just participate in an activity that all little girls are able to do, it’s such a blessing to me to be the person that is able to give that to them,” Lanier said.
Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213