Sierra Dawson clapped in time with the beat Wednesday.
Then she stepped in place, her feet finding the rhythm.
Then she strode across the floor, marching to the music with her hands on her hips.
Then she added battements, or straight-leg kicks.
Sierra, 8, is still a beginner at ballet, but she looked graceful.
She looked like a natural.
She looked happy.
Sierra is autistic, and a traditional dance class would be challenging for her, said her mom, Melanie Dawson.
But she’s been taking part in a spring break INCLUDE workshop, designed to tear down barriers to dance for children with special needs.
“Sierra would have a tough time focusing in a regular class without help. (In the INCLUDE workshop), there’s one (grown-up) dancer to every two kids, or sometimes even one-on-one. That assistance is really nice,” Melanie Dawson said. “Sierra likes to dance, so it’s really cool that she has an opportunity like this to do something she enjoys with the help.”
INCLUDE stands for Inspiring, with No Challenges or Limitations, the Universality of Dance Experiences. It’s a new program developed by Rebecca Rogo, a dancer and educator.
Rogo is the daughter of Joel and Debra Rogo, who run Tri-Cities Academy of Ballet and Music and the Mid-Columbia Ballet. Rebecca holds a masters degree in education from the University of Washington.
INCLUDE offers in-studio workshops and classes at local schools. It also organizes sensory-friendly performances aimed at making special needs children feel more comfortable in the audience.
Sierra took part in INCLUDE’s first in-studio workshop several weeks back. She also attended a sensory-friendly performance of Little Red Riding Hood, coordinated by INCLUDE.
The performance was a good length and the dancers came out before and afterward to meet with the kids, Dawson said.
“They were so open to the kids, they stayed for a long time,” she said, adding Sierra had a great time.
Dawson said she’s hopeful INCLUDE will continue to offer programs and grow.
Kristine Miller feels the same way. Her daughter Lilly, 11, also took part in a previous INCLUDE workshop and was dancing with Sierra and other children in the spring break workshop Wednesday at Tri-Cities Academy of Ballet in Richland.
Like Sierra, Lilly is on the autism spectrum. She also faces some other challenges.
“It can be hard to find activities for her, and I’m glad that (the program) is picking up. It’s awesome,” Miller said.
Rogo said she’s encouraged by its success. The arts should be open to all, and INCLUDE is helping to that end, she said.
“When barriers are put up, it’s not good for people with disabilities and the quality of their life, but it’s also not good for society. When people have these expectations of — here are people who can do this activity and here are people who can’t, we are all the poorer for it,” she said.
Through programs like INCLUDE, “you can see people blossom and find strength.”
The young dancers at Wednesday’s workshop certainly seemed to be blossoming.
Paired up with Mid-Columbia Ballet company members, they clapped and marched and walked and leaped.
Lilly, in a leotard, pink tights and ballet slippers. Sierra, her long hair pulled back and a smile on her face.
She earned praise for her battements. She gracefully moved her arms. She moved her feet in time. She danced.