SF Ballet Opens Its Doors to the Special Needs Community

SF Ballet School faculty member Kristi DeCaminada leads a Nutcracker movement workshop. (© Bob Heathcote)

SF Ballet School faculty member Kristi DeCaminada leads a Nutcracker movement workshop. (© Bob Heathcote)

As part of SF Ballet’s mission to make dance accessible to all, the Company’s Education and Training Department partnered with Autism Fun Bay Area (AFBA) to provide a sensory-friendly Nutcracker workshop for children and young adults with special needs and their families. This workshop was the first time SF Ballet organized a performance like this for the special needs community.

Every aspect of the workshop was carefully planned with this audience in mind. The shortened, 40-minute performance focused on the Nutcracker theme, a perfect launch of the holiday season. Seven SF Ballet School Trainees demonstrated barre exercises and center work, and other Trainees performed the fast-paced Spanish and Russian variations from the Nutcracker. The grand finale featured Principal Dancer Sofiane Sylve, who danced the Sugar Plum Fairy variation.


Principal Dancer Sofiane Sylve with workshop participants. (© Erik Tomasson)

Throughout the mini-performance, families were encouraged to walk around the studio and explore movement on the ballet barres which were placed near the audience during the Trainee demonstration. After, families were invited to the stage to participate in an interactive movement class, set to music from the Nutcracker March and Chinese and Russian variations, and led by School Faculty Member Kristi DeCaminada. Children and the adults who accompanied them enjoyed the opportunity to move, imitate, and express themselves through dance and movement. 

AFBA Co-founder Sigrid Van Bladel, a mother of a young teen with autism, explains that “having these dedicated performances tailored to them where everyone can feel good, parents don’t have to be nervous, and kids can be themselves…is just unbelievably valuable.” When she and her concert pianist husband created AFBA in 2012, their goal was to bring high-quality music and dance to families who are unable to attend regular performances due to sensory challenges. By working with arts organizations such as SF Ballet, AFBA is able to modify the traditional theater experience for the special needs community.

(© Erik Tomasson)

Workshop participants at the costume station. (© Erik Tomasson)

The workshop ended with interactive stations in the studio next door. Families took photos with Trainees dressed in Nutcracker costumes, and they received performance posters signed by Sylve. Participants especially enjoyed costume stations where they could touch pointe shoes and costumes. One of the parents remarked, “To see [the costumes and pointe shoes] right there in front of you is a wonderful experience. To be able to say ‘These are the ballet slippers that they actually danced in’ is magical.” 

The ultimate goal of the workshop was to create a safe environment where children with special needs could feel comfortable while watching a live dance performance and one where families could experience the joy that comes from watching and performing ballet together.

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