Sensory-Friendly Pennsylvania Ballet Performances Make Art Accessible to All
The ballet creates a welcoming space for kids with special needs.
The Pennsylvania Ballet has expanded its commitment to special needs outreach, forged last year when they first presented a sensory-friendly performance of The Nutcracker. This year, in addition to the holiday season classic, the ballet has added a sensory-friendly performance within their Family Programming series. In partnership with Art-Reach, the ballet has worked to create a welcoming and more comfortable experience in which families with children who are on the autism spectrum or may have sensory sensitivities can share the unique beauty of ballet.
I took my daughter, who has some sensory issues, to the Pennsylvania Ballet’s recent performance of Snow White, danced by members of Pennsylvania Ballet II (PBII) and students from the School of Pennsylvania Ballet. This performance was already designed for children in mind, but this particular showtime was designated as sensory-friendly.
While she loves music, dance, and storytelling, taking my daughter to performances is often a real challenge, so I was so excited to see what a sensory-friendly performance was like.
We arrived to the Prince Theater early, in part because I wanted to let my daughter get comfortable, and also so I could speak to the individuals who had made this all happen for the ballet. I met with Sarah Cooper, director of community engagement for the Pennsylvania Ballet, who explained that the ballet was the first resident company of the Kimmel Center to offer sensory-friendly performances for families with children on the autism spectrum, recognizing the need for cultural inclusion and allowing all individuals to experience the performing arts in a more inclusive setting.
When it came time to craft a sensory-friendly performance, the ballet reached out to Roger Ideishi, program director and associate professor of occupational therapy at Temple University, and the organization Art-Reach, which works to create, advocate for, and expand accessible opportunities in the arts for all audiences.
Charlie Miller, deputy director of Art-Reach, explained that to prepare for a show, they conduct a mini training with staff, to help them understand what it means to do a sensory-friendly show. In addition to theater staff, they also instruct the dancers that while they are performing, a child might dysregulate, stand up, walk around, and verbalize. To help with these eventualities, volunteers are waiting in the aisles to lend a hand or lead kids to a more peaceful setting to calm down.
In addition, the Pennsylvania Ballet, Temple University, and Art-Reach worked together to create a pre-performance guide, made available online for those attending the sensory-friendly performance. This guide helps attendees feel better prepared for what they are about to do, with simple first-person explanations like “I am going to the Prince Theater to see a ballet. A ballet tells a story through dancing,” and “The theater and theater lobby may be crowded. I can go to the quiet area if I want to get away from the crowds.”
These help a child feel some control over their situation, and know what to expect and how they can actively meet challenges they may face with this new experience.
When we arrived at the Prince Theater, we were greeted by students from Temple University’s occupational therapy master’s program, who engaged my daughter on the floor of the lobby and showed her the quiet area they had set up, which contained a soft tunnel she could climb through, leading to a tent filled with soft pillows. This area remained set up and accessible throughout the performance, available for kids who needed a break from all the excitement and stimulation of the show.
“It is so important to make room in society for everyone,” Christina Neroni, a Temple University grad student in OT, explained. The work that she does through Temple in non-traditional settings such as a ballet performance allow her to bring this mission “to an organizational level, and to a population level.”
In addition to creating the quiet area, the students also offered attendees noise-cancelling headphones to wear in the theater, as well as brightly colored fidget toys for kids who need some extra sensory input to help calm them down.
“I like how it feels,” I heard one of the students explaining to my daughter, “it’s like a fuzzy worm!” My daughter selected a rainbow “fuzzy worm” and continued to hold it in her seat through the whole show (stopping to clap at the end, of course).
The show setting itself was adjusted with house lights kept on at a low level in the auditorium during the entire performance, and the doors left open in case anyone needed access to the quiet area in the lobby. Additionally, if a kid felt the need to get up or verbalize, the relaxed rules allowed that kind of freedom. This did happen during the ballet, and it was amazing to see how quickly and easily a child was able to receive help.
And for our part, this was easily my daughter’s smoothest theater experience. From the moment we walked in, she was met with such warmth and kindness, that it removed the anxiety we usually have when coming to such a setting, and I think that calmed her down and helped her settle through the performance.
Just knowing there was an accepting audience around us, and a welcoming escape valve in the “comfy tent,” as she called it, took the pressure off and gave her a delightful experience. The rainbow “worm” fidget didn’t hurt either!
Lead photograph by Laura Swartz.