Young children stretch before dance class

Movement, Mobility, and a Touch of Magic

Physical therapy can be pretty repetitious and even a little boring for children experiencing long-term treatments for diseases and special needs. The good news is that there are a growing number of unconventional ways that may improve their fitness and mobility to spice things up. One of the most creative methods to get these children moving is to use choreographed movements and dance based on films and fairytales.

For example, a non-profit program called Fairytale Physical Therapy1 based in New York City is doing just that. Co-founders Jenna Kantor and Katie Schmidt describe their mission as, “We create joy and magic by bringing musical theatre shows to children in hospitals while teaching choreography that is secretly composed of therapeutic exercise!” Their costumed pediatric therapists visit children, mostly in hospitals and clinics, and teach kids various movements to build strength, coordination, balance, and mobility.

At Akron Children’s Hospital in Ohio, 7-year-old Mehkai McCann, who has cerebral palsy and developmental delays, enjoys participating in dance performances with other kids who have special needs.2 A choreographer with Dance Unlimited, Roxy Balukh, and volunteer pediatric therapists guide the children in developing their many rehearsals and shows. Mehkai’s mother has noticed improvements in his physical and mental abilities since joining the program.

Louisiana State University’s Chance to Dance program3 also is designed as a physical therapy option for children with special needs. Kristi Riley has had her daughter Giullianna in the program and has seen improved mobility and other benefits. She says, “Honestly, there was one point that we didn’t even think Giullianna was going to walk, so just to see her perform on the dance stage and reach those goals was, I mean, it was mind-blowing and exciting.”

Evidence to back up benefits of dance therapy

There is significant anecdotal evidence supporting the physiological and psychological benefits of dance therapy for children with special needs. However, there have been few medical studies focused on this unconventional approach, especially related to mobility. Pediatric therapists employ many methods to get children moving, including dance, for improved fitness and other health benefits due to the level of exercise associated with dancing. Perhaps these medical professionals will work with the leaders of programs such as Physical Therapy, Dance Unlimited, and Chance to Dance if opportunities arise to design studies specifically on dance therapy for children with special needs.

1 Fairytale Physical Therapy.

2 “Dancing all the way: Kids with special needs groove at Akron Children’s Hospital”  Ideastream Public Media,  Anna Huntsman. Published December 20, 2023. 

3 “(Not) Just Dance: Dance therapy offers many benefits for special needs children” Adam Guttuso, LSU TigerTV, April 12, 2023.

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