For five years, children with special needs have had the opportunity to study traditional ballet through Georgia Ballet's DanceAbility program. But even though they were studying the dance form, some students had never seen a professional ballet performance.
The music, the lights or a dark theater could add up to a stressful experience for children who are sensory sensitive. So Georgia Ballet has introduced two sensory friendly shows for the new season that feature open seating, softer music and other accommodations to meet children's special needs.
"We have been looking at trying to do a sensory friendly show for the past three years," said Executive Director, Joy M. Johnson. "It is something that takes some planning. In some respects it is a risk for us to do this with one of our shows. If it is not well received, it has an impact on us."
But local experts say events that welcome children with various disorders are almost always well received and are growing in number.
Dr. Scott Hamilton, a clinical psychologist and Asst. Head of School for Academics at the Howard School has heard of movie theaters, haunted houses and other child-focused attractions that adapt their offerings to suit children with special needs.
Hamilton, who has a son with autism, said children with sensory sensitivity can be overwhelmed by loud noises or bright lights, particularly when it takes them by surprise. "That can cause them to be really stressed out," he said.
Children with a hyperreactive nervous system, get signals from their brains that there is danger, he said. "Having an environment where they are not anticipating or worrying about that is a good thing," he said. "A lot of times with kids, it is the anticipation of the sound or the light that can be overwhelming to them even before the sensory overload happens."
Johnson recognized the importance of offering sensory friendly shows when she observed the children of a former employee at a production of the Nutcracker. Both are children with down syndrome and while one was fine through the entire performance, the other child could only sit on the floor with his hands over his ears, Johnson said.
"The Georgia Ballet's mission is to reach out to the community. We really felt that in keeping with our mission we would try a sensory friendly series," she said.
"The Girl Who Needed Watching," and the classic "The Nutcracker," have been modified for a sensory sensitive audience. "The Nutcracker is our highest attended show and we definitely wanted to make sure we did it," said Kaitlyn Pack, Marketing and Box Office Manager at Georgia Ballet. "The Girl Who Needed Watching," is a family story and is fun and comedic so it seemed like another good fit to test it out as well," she said.
Traditional shows are about two hours, but Georgia Ballet also offers hour-long abbreviated performances to school groups. They decided to take those shows and modify them a bit more to make them sensory friendly. The music won't be as loud, there won't be any loud pops or cannons and they make sure that nothing is jumping out on stage, said Pack. The house lights will be up to keep the theater well lit and the lights on stage will be toned down so it won't be visually jarring.
The show is general admission -- unlike any of the other Georgia Ballet performances -- with the understanding that children are not expected to sit in their seats for the entire time.
Johnson emphasizes that the quality of the production is the same as any other shows. "The caliber of dancing and the story presented will be of the caliber of our company – so anyone who comes to it will appreciate the dancing and the atmosphere," she said.
While accommodations are being made for those (children and adults) with sensory sensitivity, the show is open to all.
"We are excited about this additional offering for the public," Johnson said. "We are committed to the special needs community and we wanted to find a way to expand that. I think it will be an opportunity to give the children an experience they probably have not had before.”
Event Preview: Sensory Friendly Shows at Georgia Ballet
"The Girl Who Needed Watching," Oct. 7 at 2 p.m.
"The Nutcracker," Dec. 1 at 7 p.m.
All tickets to the Sensory Friendly Shows are $15 and are open to the public. For more information call 770-528-0881.