Ballet breaks barriers

ssorich@ledger-enquirer.comJuly 3, 2011 

Greg Blalock still remembers watching from a distance, knowing things could quickly take a disastrous turn.

“My heart was, for an hour, just beating,” Blalock said.

Among the young ballet dancers inside the room: his daughter, Meera Wall, whom Blalock says is “as much as a devil as any other 10-year-old.”

Meera has Down syndrome.

Last October, Blalock and Sheetul Wall, Meera’s mother, enrolled her in a pre-ballet course with the Columbus State University Dance Conservatory. It was her first major extracurricular activity that was not disability-related.

Some factors made the challenge seem less daunting.

Meera’s sister, 6-year-old Ella Blalock, was enrolled in the course. And Greg Blalock is a professor of special education at CSU.

But that didn’t make him immune to the fears that come with immersing a special needs child in a mainstream activity.

Chief among those fears: a chance that the program could turn away his child.

“It’s just hard on you as a parent to hear somebody say that,” Blalock said. “That’s the emotional risk.”

Amid those risks, Blalock still found himself watching Meera dance.

And waiting.

Ten-year-old Meera was taller than her 5- and 6-year-old classmates. She sometimes stepped outside social norms, often due to her interest in hugging.

That’s why Rebekah Brackett, a special education major at CSU, accompanied Meera during her early involvement in the program.

“She tried to follow the other girls’ leads. She picked up on some of their behaviors, which was great,” Brackett said.

Tiffany Jarczyk, a pre-ballet instructor for the CSU Dance Conservatory, used techniques like a hula hoop with magic sparkles to teach Meera about personal space boundaries. She sometimes relied on a toy ring as an incentive to ensure Meera behaved well while standing at the ballet bar.

Beyond behavioral issues, there was a deeper question.

In an activity seemingly defined by strict conformity, how would the other girls react to Meera?

“For the girls, Meera was another student. They knew that she’s different, but they accepted her very openly,” said Maria Hirsch, director of the CSU Dance Conservatory and artistic director of the Columbus Ballet.

Hirsch, who is also a certified special education teacher, said instructors’ reactions impacted classmates’ interactions with Meera.

“They will react positively or negatively, depending on how the teacher reacts,” she explained.

Still, as Meera’s father looked through that mirror, he knew a wrong move -- like the chance that Meera might impulsively pick up another student -- could spur an effort to remove his daughter from the class.

It didn’t happen.

Instead, thanks to a coordinated effort, Meera successfully navigated her ballet classes -- and likely taught her fellow dancers an early lesson in diversity in the process.

“The more diversity we have like that in society, the more society learns that’s not a scary thing,” Blalock said.

While recently rehearsing for a ballet recital, Meera twirled and described feeling pretty on stage.

Her excitement transcended any surface factors separating her from her classmates.

“Dance really connects to anybody, no matter what physical limitation you might have,” Jarczyk said.

Moments later, Meera danced on stage to “When You Wish upon a Star.”

Her father sat in the audience, a space much more comfortable than the anxiety that initially surrounded the process.

His wish was granted -- and he was looking at his stars.

Sonya Sorich, 706-571-8516.

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