Physician brings adapted ballet classes to summer camp for kids with physical disabilities

Camp Riley dancers raise their hands above their headsView print quality image
Dance instructor Lauren Sokol, left of center, leads Camp Riley campers in practicing an adapted ballet routine developed for kids with physical disabilities and medical conditions by IU School of Medicine associate professor Deborah Sokol. Photo by Andrea Zeek, Indiana University

On a hot summer day in Southern Indiana, the familiar sound of an orchestral melody filled the woods.

Kids pointed their toes and reached their arms high as they danced to the tune of "Waltz of the Flowers" from "The Nutcracker" in an activity building at Camp Riley at Bradford Woods, Indiana University's outdoor center in Martinsville.

This is the first summer that Camp Riley, a summer camp for kids with physical disabilities and medical conditions, has offered campers the adapted ballet classes -- the brainchild of Dr. Deborah Sokol, an IU School of Medicine associate professor of clinical neurology.

Sokol, also a pediatric neurologist at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health, said she was inspired to start the ballet project after talking to the mother of one of her patients, who has cerebral palsy.

"I asked what her daughter -- my patient -- was doing this summer, and she said, 'Watching her brother take swim lessons,'" Sokol said.

Hoping to help give kids living with physical limitations more options for summer fun, Sokol applied for a grant from the IU Women's Philanthropy Leadership Council to fund a ballet project at Camp Riley. She got the funding and proposed the idea to staff at Camp Riley, who welcomed the new activity.

Top: IU School of Medicine associate professor Deborah Sokol, center, looks on as campers practice choreography set to "Waltz of the Flowers" from "The Nutcracker." Bottom left: Campers in Camp Riley's Elm Cabin practice pointing their ballet toes. Bottom right: The dance class warms up with stretching exercises before beginning ballet practice. Photos by Andrea Zeek, Indiana University

Camp Riley has operated at IU's Bradford Woods since 1955 thanks to the support of Riley Children's Foundation. It features different sessions throughout the summer designed to empower campers with barrier-free access to fun activities including adapted waterskiing, scuba and climbing. The camp also provides 24-hour medical coverage for campers in partnership with clinicians from Riley Hospital for Children.

Tim Street, associate director of Bradford Woods, said the ballet project was "perfect" for Camp Riley because it provides a way for campers to participate in an activity they might not have been able to take part in before.

As part of the ballet project, a group of campers learned choreography set to the music of three songs from "The Nutcracker." They worked with Sokol and two college students, who served as dance instructors, to practice the adapted ballet routines for a final performance in front of their fellow campers.

Camp Riley camper Audrey Zubrenic, 16, who has cerebral palsy, said learning ballet had been fun, and she was looking forward to getting dressed up for the final performance.

Another camper, Katie Gries, 17, who also has cerebral palsy, said her favorite ballet moves to practice were kicks, graceful ballet arm-waving, and "bursts," in which dancers reach their arms and legs out wide.

Sokol said that in addition to the physical activity, she hopes that learning and performing the ballet routines increases campers' self-esteem and opens their minds to different types of music, dance and other cultural experiences.

"I'm delighted that Camp Riley let us try this program," she said.

This year's project was a pilot program to determine the effectiveness of offering such a class to kids with physical disabilities and medical conditions such as cerebral palsy and spina bifida. Sokol said she will compare survey data collected before campers participated in the classes, including questions gauging their interest in ballet, with survey responses collected after the classes are finished.