I was talking to the mother of one of my daughter Amelia’s kinder mates the other day. Her little girl, like mine, was born with a hearing loss and has additional needs.
She was telling me about how her daughter had started ballet this year and how transformative the classes had been, how happy they had made her.
The impetus for enrolling her in ballet came partly from her child’s interest but also from the family’s need to do something ‘normal’ outside of all the therapy and medical appointments that populate their days.
Just one day, a single hour, a few stolen moments, where her daughter is merely a girl who likes to wear a tutu, stand in first position and have a go at a plié.
Meaning, I know what it feels like to long for normality in the midst of intense times punctuated by diagnoses and treatments that stretch out before us like a highway with no end.
Our weekly escape isn’t ballet though, it’s Drama Play which is held every Friday in a small church hall on the other side of the city.
The program is run by a youth theatre company and a finer group of creative adults working with children you could not hope to meet.
The point of going is partly about tapping into a stress-free activity which might help to build her confidence and her understanding of social situations.
But the main reason is far less didactic – I’m just looking for a safe place outside of home and kinder where Amelia can simply be herself. No needles, no tests, no judgements, just fun if and when she chooses to participate.
Each session is loosely structured around a wonderful children’s story which is told in various modes: verbally, visually and through play. A hand-drawn map of the morning’s activities (courtesy of the gifted HL) shows us where we are and also where we’re headed.
Over a child-friendly 45 minutes, the little troupe aged between three and five are led by three awesome pied pipers whose intuitive approach to the creative needs of their charges has been inspiring to watch.
To commence, we sit on colourful cushions for the welcome song (accompanied by animated gestures) then we do some mad cavorting as we ‘sign’ our names with our bodies.
Time is set aside for some free-form dance where every child has a turn to express their individuality and lead the group with their own special moves. No-one directs or pushes. The adults are there to guide and encourage, or step back if that is the appropriate response.
Amelia still talks to me excitedly about a session from a number of weeks ago when the theme tune from the Harry Potter movies was the soundtrack to her turn at the helm of the dance parade.
Back then it didn’t seem as though she was super aware that the spotlight was on her for her two minutes of fame, but these happy recollections tell a different story.
There is a clue in this for me that involves not worrying too much about what Amelia appears to be feeling or experiencing in the moment because looks can be deceiving about just how deep her engagement with the world really is.
Story time is conducted by the dynamic AW who reads to us enchantingly from a carefully chosen book, like Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak. Then this narrative world is opened out to include the children and the scope of their imaginations.
The little actors are helped to set up key parts of the story with props, often tactile objects like furry carpets or textured grass-like mats. Then they become ‘Max’, playing the role of the little boy from Sendak’s tale – untamed things on the hunt for an adventure of their own making.
There are no passengers on this journey of self-discovery; parents can’t opt out for fear of embarrassment. We are drawn into the performance fray as much as the little ones and for me it’s actually incredibly freeing to run and jump and sing and harness my ‘child within’.
A final map-check tells us it’s time to go home, so we belt out the closing number and say our goobyes. The time really flies when you are laughing and soaking up the kid’s joyful antics.
I like the sessions because they are so visual and full of non-verbal communication. I’m also a huge fan of the way they follow a familiar pattern every time but allow for loads of flexibility and inventiveness. You won’t find a more go-with-the-flow space to be with small children.
For a bilingual (Auslan and speech) deaf girl with autism who is often inflexible, sometimes anxious and always into routine, Drama Play is a match made in heaven. And there is so much ROOM to play or not play, whatever her mood is on a given day.
Sometimes, she takes 20 minutes to warm up but no-one fusses over her. If she prefers to lie on a cushion or draw, then there is freedom for her to do that. When she wants to keep holding onto a torch prop long after they are in use, honestly, no-one gives a damn.
But they never stop encouraging. The fabulous artistic director, SA, is always at ground level asking Amelia to engage and then backing right off if the response in speech or emphatic head shake translates to a resounding NO.
And when Amelia is ready, the team embrace her involvement with warmth and positive energy to burn. I don’t really have to do anything, except model what ‘joining in’ looks like, provide some Auslan interpretation and assist with the gentle coaxing.
Last week provided something new: a whole session where Amelia was on board from the start of the map, not somewhere down the track after she’d walked her own road for a while.
It may have been because her Dad came with us that morning and Amelia was excited to show him this special place where we go most Fridays.
Or it could also have been because there was only one other little girl there that day who was keen to share in all the drama with her. The girl took her cushion for story time and positioned another one next to her for Amelia to occupy.
Usually, Amelia does not connect with the book reading part of the session or with the other children but on this occasion she sat next to her fellow thesp and really listened.
After a few moments she went back to sit with her Dad, her parental anchor in the circle. But her new friend looked around for her and tapped the cushion as though to say “Come back, this is your place, next to me”.
It was a sweet gesture of inclusion and after a brief hesitation Amelia did go back and take her place next to that girl who I wanted to hug for simply looking back and asking my daughter to join her. To belong.