Alexander Pidel might have learned to love music when he was still in utero. How could he not, with a mother who was a professional dancer?
It had a calming effect on him, so when he was diagnosed with autism, mom Donna Pidel developed and taught a children’s class in expression through music and play that continued until Alexander aged out of the program.
He’s 27 now and still loving music, dance and painting — one of his group works appears on a Howard County Autism Society poster and T-shirt — although so far such a class for adults hasn’t worked out.
Nonetheless, his mother, founder and owner of Ballet Royale Institute of Maryland in Columbia, has again begun an Exceptional Dancers class for children on the autism spectrum.
Now Rose McGuire, Noelle Wyatt and other children ages 5 to 15 can learn to express themselves through movement and music, at the same time increasing body awareness and social comfort.
The girls were quite taken with the studio’s wall mirror during a recent class. Rose, in her pink tutu, happily greeted Noelle’s arrival in her new purple one.
To music from Chopin and Vivaldi, winding up with Michael Jackson, they passed a ball, flipped and flapped a parachute to learn stop and go, fast and slow, socialization and eye contact, and they even got in some leg swinging at the barre.
Patient board-certified dance and movement therapist Sarah Croushler instructs these classes differently from others. Here, “the teacher takes the lead from the students,” she explains. “I base the class on the kids’ needs.”
Just ask their families.
“Ballet Royale gives Noelle access to the arts in a safe environment that helps her to express her needs,” says mom Veleska Wyatt, a dance teacher herself.
“Dancing makes her really happy,” says Rose’s aunt Kate McGuire. “It’s a great outlet.”
“And it gets them out in the community,” notes Wyatt.
“We want the school to be accessible to everyone who likes music and dance,” says Donna Pidel. “Having this experience is more gratifying to me than anything.”
Many people with autistic children want inclusion in regular classes, but it doesn’t always work out for children with low- to moderate-functioning autism, Pidel observes.
“It would be easier to bring a class to an existing program [like the Linwood Center in Ellicott City, on whose board she serves] for children and adults than vice versa,” she says.
But that’s for the future. For now, the 25-year-old school, which follows the training curriculum of the American Ballet Theatre, will be moving to larger quarters just up Red Branch Road next year, with four studios, a floor-to-ceiling window and a cafe.