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Book highlights aspiring ballerinas
Through the lens of a camera, it’s sparkles and feathers, and lightweight tulle tutus and an abundance of pink.
But for the five girls featured in author Lauren Thompson’s book “Ballerina Dreams,” learning the finer points of the ballet was a lesson in endurance and achievement.
“Ballerina Dreams” (Feiwel and Friends, 2006) follows the true story of five children ages 3 to 7 that, despite being diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy and other disabilities, enroll in a specialized ballet class instructed by their physical therapist Joanna Ferrera.
The book begins with a simple dream that inspires many little girls – to be ballerinas. The girls practiced for several weeks with their dedicated teacher, and eventually they were ready for the spotlight.
Thompson was inspired to write the book by New York Times story that ran in 2006 about Joann’s unique program.
“The girls had a dream, but they knew it wouldn’t be easy to make this dream come true,” Thompson wrote. “They had Cerebral Palsy and other muscle disorders, and their muscles wouldn’t move exactly the way they wanted them to. Some had trouble raising their arms or holding themselves upright. Some found it hard to keep their balance. Some used wheelchairs and walkers to get around.
“They knew that they might never move in the same way that other ballerinas move,” she wrote. “But they were eager to see what they could do.”
The children featured in “Ballerina Dreams” are Nicole, Shekinah, Veronica and Abbey and Monica. They all live in the immediate Queens community and receive physical therapy services at Joann’s clinic.
All of the girls, save for one, have Cerebral Palsy. Abbey, 4, has Erb’s Palsy which has limited her use of her left arm. Erb’s Palsy is a condition caused during birth by an injury to nerves in the shoulder area. Monica, 5, copes with balance issues and uses a walker or cane. Nicole, 3, also has balance issues and uses a walker. Shekinah, 5, uses either a wheelchair or a walker. Veronica, 7, uses a wheelchair.
The book, by using compelling photos expertly shot by New York Times photographer Eric Estrin, relays the sheer joy on the girls’ faces as they practice for the big recital.
During class, practice begins like other ballet classes, with one notable difference – each child has a volunteer helper to provide physical support as they go through compulsory positions. The girls stretch out at the barre, and practice moves designed to showcase the gracefulness of a dancer. Each week the young students get stronger and more flexible. But more importantly, they improve their confidence level.
After weeks of work, the big recital now seems within a firm grasp.
The morning of the recital, the girls are pictured in their pink tutus, leotards, tights, and most importantly, their point shoes. Instructors, parents and helpers put touches of makeup on their small faces to make the experience authentic like professional ballerinas.
For some, there are last-minute jitters.
One of the girls asks Joann, “What if I drop my wand?”
She replied, “Just smile and keep going. That’s what ballerinas do.”
The dancers take the stage, free of their assistive equipment and with their helpers. They dance under the spotlight, performing the routine they practiced so intently for several weeks, all to the delight of the assembled crowd.
The helpers gently guide the girls’ bodies into position.
The first number the girls performed was from “The Nutcracker.” They are dressed like sugar plum fairies. They are wearing eye shadow, sparkling blush, glittery hairspray and lipstick, just like prima ballerinas.
The girls also performed a number from “Swan Lake.” Figuratively and literally, they spread their wings, and dive to mimic the movement of the swan.
At the end of the recital, the girls each pick up a large silver star; it’s a memento to remember their special night. The classic song, “When you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are…” closes out the show.
“Once, there were five little girls who dreamed of being ballerinas. And they made their dreams come true,” Thompson writes in “Ballerina Dreams.”
However, the book’s message about the importance of inclusion is far more complex.
“Ballerina Dreams” makes the point that even though children’s abilities and differences may vary significantly in a physical sense, deep inside, children have the same desires, hopes, and potential. It pontificates, disabilities need not diminish dreams.
“Ballerina Dreams” was the winner of the prestigious Bank Street – Flora Stieglitz Award in 2008. The award recognizes excellence in children’s literature. The book is available online at Barnes and Noble, Amazon and through most book stores.
Among the colorful and engaging selection of children’s books, there are few characters with a disability that young people with Cerebral Palsy can relate to. However, as evidenced by Romeo Riley’s crack detective work and the photos of ballerinas in pink, that tide is slowly turning.