Elise Luna, 6, loves to dance. With her ballet DVD in hand, she twirls around her living room every chance she gets. One of the biggest treats of the week is her ballet class.
While verbal communication is a challenge for Elise, who has autism, dance frees her to fully express herself.
Elise has been taking classes at Ballet for all Kids in Encino for the past year. The studio, founded by Bonnie Schlachte, also has locations in Westlake Village and Ventura offers classical ballet lessons for kids with all abilities. Classes are open to boys and girls ages 2 and up, including those with learning and developmental disabilities, anxiety disorders, behavioral issues, ADHD, vision or hearing problems, and children who are nonambulatory – as well as neurotypical children.
“Elise has gained so much confidence since starting this class,” says Jennifer Luna, Elise’s mom.
There are currently 80 students enrolled in the program, which began as a way for Schlachte to combine her love of ballet and working with kids with special needs. Schlachte attended the University of Maryland on a ballet scholarship and, while in college, discovered her love of psychology and social work. She has worked with people with developmental disabilities for 20 years.
Ballet has many benefits for those with physical or developmental challenges. “It increases coordination, strength and flexibility,” says Schlachte, “but it also has tremendous developmental benefits. The parents tell us how much more self-regulated the kids are. They become more focused and do better in school and social situations.”
One of the most moving examples of the transformative power of ballet for Elise was at a party.
“Parties are typically very overwhelming for Elise,” says Luna. “But she brought her ballet DVD and just started dancing with it and three other little girls joined her. It was wonderful to watch.”
For Karla Diaz, Ballet for all Kids offers a rare opportunity for her 7-year-old daughter, Maya, who has autism, to participate in an activity with her two neurotypical sisters.
“This class allows them to be a part of each other’s lives and do something fun together,” says Diaz, who brings her daughters to the Encino studio every Sunday from Pasadena.
Ballet for all Kids works with close to 100 high school volunteers eager to share their love of dance with this special community. Some are so inspired by their volunteer work that they end up pursuing careers working with children or with those who have disabilities.
Rebecca Elbogen, 18, started ballet when she was 10 and soon joined a performance team with the Los Angeles Ballet Academy. A recent North Hollywood High graduate, Elbogen is headed to NYU for college. Saying goodbye to her students at Ballet for all Kids was difficult, she says.
“This was my first experience working with kids with special needs and I enjoyed it so much from day one,” says Elbogen. “I’m thinking of pursuing developmental psychology and working with kids.”
For more information, visit Ballet for All.