“Everyone should have fun dancing and reap the social and physical benefits it can offer,” Michele Hamlett-Weith says.
Michele started dancing at the age of 3 at Mildred Lyons Studio of Dance. “Once I started, I never wanted to leave!”
By the age of 12 she’d outgrown two dance schools and her teachers suggested she take classes with Tatiana Dokoudovska, founder of Kansas City Civic Ballet, now named Kansas City Ballet.
Tatiana was affectionately known as Miss Tania at the Conservatory at UMKC where she headed the dance department and community Center Division classes. There, students would take class five to six days a week. Then they would rehearse after classes and all day Saturday and Sunday in preparation for performances.
“We were all really, really dedicated. This was our sport. We wanted to be dancers and none of us could get enough of rehearsals and all of the fabulous blood, sweat, and tears classes under Tatiana’s stern guidance,” she says.
Have a Miss Tania story? Share how she impacted your life here.
Michele’s dance career led her to Johnson County Community College to teach ballet, jazz and modern and later became Artistic Director for the Legacy School of the Arts.
Fostering a safe space for creativity
Fast forward to 2008, parent Barb Witwer told Michele that her daughter, Jill, was interested in a dance class for dancers over the age of 12 with special needs — then Michele’s first adaptive dance class was born!
For years Kansas City Ballet only offered adaptive dance for younger students, so when former School Director Grace Holmes connected with Michele about the possibility of bringing an adaptive dance class for older students to the School, she was excited.
The ultimate goal being all students (now of all ages) work hard to one day dance in the Academy, like Autumn Hiatt.
Michele agreed and returned home to KCB with her dedicated students along with her!
She believes that dancing is a great way to connect with others and a wonderful opportunity to move expressively and build strength and improve coordination.
“I think that everyone should have fun dancing and should reap the social and physical benefits it can offer,” Michele says. “I would love to see the class numbers grow. The dancers in class right now are beautiful role models for any new, aspiring dancers. We learn the best from our peers. The warmth, focus and humor of this core group is an inspiration.”
What makes Adaptive Dance special
Simply put, Adaptive Dance is a modified ballet class.
Students learn all the French terminology and are kept to a traditional class structure (barre work, center work and large motor movement across the floor) like students normally would in any other class. Michele believes consistency shows students that you’re there for them.
“You establish a trust and a bond that lasts for years with consistency,” Michele says. “I have four students who have become amazing role models for new teen dancers. You have to have a role model. These dancers are so cool and confident and will happily help anyone out. This class is good juju and has such great energy. Everyone needs to exercise and move our bodies.”
Students stimulate fine and gross motor skills via rhythmic activities, enhance their speech and language development, and improve sensory, visual and auditory processing skills throughout the program. This helps them acquire body awareness, spatial understanding and social interaction.
Children’s Division & Adaptive Dance Coordinator Nora Burkitt-Davis says Kansas City Ballet School hopes to keep growing this program to provide more opportunities for kids looking for a fun dance experience.
“We want to give as many resources as possible and to provide a quality dance experience in alignment with our Academy classes,” Nora says. “Our goal is to provide classes that follow our students through all stages of their lives. We want dance to be a lifetime activity.”
“All these dancers enjoy the class on various levels,” Michele says. “Being together, hearing the beautiful music, moving, stretching, bending, jumping, turning — dance brings joy (and sweat!)”
Interested in the Adaptive Dance Program?
Michele would like new students and families to know that the class focuses, initially, on the joy of the movement and the camaraderie of the class environment.
She says she and the other instructors make a point to meet each student halfway to recognize their strengths and skills, and then build from there as the class progresses. They also work one-on-one with families to meet the unique needs of students who may have autism spectrum disorder, Down syndrome, apraxia, paralysis, or other diagnoses.
For many of the students, who attend from across the Kansas City area, the classes overlay with other therapies they are involved in.
“These dancers have worked with me for over 15 years,” Michele says. “They are amazing and so are their parents! The consistency of attending class has been key to the progress made by each young dancer. Classes are never the same weekly, but we roll with whatever we experience that day.”
KC Ballet Adaptive Dance Programs offer creative movement and ballet classes in an open environment for children and adults with disabilities. Begin the registration process today by completing an KCBS Adaptive Dance Registration Form. For questions, please contact Nora Burkitt-Davis, Adaptive Dance Coordinator. Check out our Social Story: I go to dance class.
“Our students are happy because it’s dance class. I was happy in dance class at their age and was fortunate to be in an environment that worked for me, so I wanted to give them a space like that with this class,” Michele says. “And these dancers have still been here after 15 years. Their parents are seeing benefits to their children doing this. It’s mind, body and spirit dedication. We’re all challenging our bodies to learn more movements and we’re all happy because it’s such good positive energy.”
Make an Impact Today!
To learn more about how to support Kansas City Ballet School’s Adaptive Dance Program, please contact Director of Gift Planning, Rebecca Zandarski.
Photography by Beeh Becvar.