First Steps

Michelina Cassella, director of the department of physical therapy and occupational therapy services at Children's Hospital Boston and director of physical therapy services at Boston Ballet

By Veronica Chao
Globe Staff / June 7, 2009
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Eight years ago, Michelina "Mickey" Cassella had an idea that would bring her two worlds together. With support from her two employers, she created a dance class for children with Down syndrome. The program, which launched in 2002 and has grown from one class to four at the South End location, will add another class at Boston Ballet's studios in Marblehead in September.

What gave you the idea for this class, and how did you get it going?

I'd always worked with children with severe disabilities as well as with dancers with incredible abilities. Boston Ballet has one of the largest schools for ballet, and they also have outreach programs. I thought it would be so wonderful if the ballet would open its doors to children with special needs. We have a Down syndrome program at Children's, and I knew they had a fund for creative programs. I wrote a proposal and secured funding for a pilot program with 11 kids, ages 6 to 11.

And you got a dancer from Boston Ballet to teach the class.

There were two things I knew I needed: children that would really do well and an exceptional teacher. I had known Gino Di Marco from the corps de ballet. I caught him backstage one day -- he was coming up to stage right to perform, and I told him I wanted to do this and I wanted him to teach it. It took him only two classes to fall in love with the kids.

What were the initial challenges?

We dealt with how to help them recognize left from right; we tried bells, ribbons, and finally I came up with duct tape, red on the right foot, blue on left [they now also use red and blue socks]. The other thing that happened was the piano music wasn't working -- it was too distracting. Gino said, "Why don't we use a drummer?" That was brilliant. When you hear the drum, you internalize that beat. The kids really responded.

What have you learned from the kids?

I'm continually surprised at their incredible ability. I don't call them children with special needs, I call them children with special abilities. They're loving, loving children to work with; they're just themselves, and they are so proud of their accomplishments. We went in with no expectations. We just wanted each child to work to his or her ability. They've far surpassed anything I could have imagined.