Martha Leebolt is the co-artistic director of Southern California Ballet, which was awarded a grant to start an adaptive dance program for adults with special needs, beginning Oct. 9
San Diego Union Tribune
by Lisa Deaderick
It was around this time last year when Southern California Ballet was awarded a grant to start a six-week adaptive dance program for adults with special needs, spearheaded by the dance company’s co-artistic director, Martha Leebolt. Leebolt got her start dancing at Southern California Ballet as a kid, eventually becoming a professional dancer with Northern Ballet in the United Kingdom in 2001,
“As a child, I was pretty physical and enjoyed working hard, which is something that ballet requires,” she says. “I also like the structure that ballet has and the opportunity it presents to keep improving and perfecting. When you are able to achieve something after working your hardest, it is very rewarding.”
She hopes to offer that same rewarding experience to the students in this workshop, which begins Oct. 9 and continues each week through Nov. 13 at the dance company’s studio in Carmel Mountain. The program is free and open to all, including adults 18 to 55 years old with special needs, as well as adults who don’t have special needs. Students will learn different styles of dance, from modern to ballet to jazz, culminating in a community performance at the end of the six weeks.
Leebolt, 37, lives in Carmel Mountain with her husband and co-artistic director, Tobias Batley. She took some time to talk about her love of dance, the new adaptive dance program, and a couple of the relationships and experiences that helped form her desire to help others.
Q: How did you get started as a dancer?
A: I started out taking dance from a neighborhood girl in her garage on Saturdays. After a couple of years, my teacher Missy told me that if I wanted to be serious about dance that I needed to go take lessons at a ballet school to receive proper training. I started out at Southern California Ballet (back then, it was known as Black Mountain Dance Center) when I was 11, which is a pretty late start for a girl. After taking my first class with the director, it was decided that I needed to start from the beginning in level one with the 6- and 7-year-olds. It was tough, but I knew that I wanted to be a dancer, so if I was going to succeed, I would need to go back to the basics.
Q: Why did you want to join Southern California Ballet as co-artistic director?
A: This was the school that I grew up in, so what could be more perfect than to be able to return home to the studio in which I spent six days a week, to pass on all of my experiences and knowledge to a new generation of dancers? It was my home away from home when I was growing up, as it is today to many of the current dancers. When we arrived, I decided it was our responsibility to continue the vision, ethos, and high-quality training upon which Sylvia Palmer-Zetler had founded the studio 30 years ago.
Q: Let’s talk about your new, upcoming workshop for adults with special needs. When you were a teenager, you taught dance to kids with special needs at SCB. What compelled you to do this back then?
A: Since starting at SCB, putting together a program for adaptive dance has been a dream of mine. … In high school, I was a teacher assistant to a special needs class during my free periods. Since dance was such a huge part of my life, I decided that it would be an awesome thing to do. A friend and I put together a six-week program dancing to our favorite Disney songs, and it was a hit!
What I love about Carmel Mountain ...
We live very close to an amazing movie theater, which we love to visit. We also love Orfila Vineyards & Winery in Escondido, which is not technically in our neighborhood, but it is close enough and beautiful enough that we go often.
Q: What did you learn from that experience that you’ve been able to apply to this program for adults?
A: I learned that dance is a vehicle to allow people to grow in many different ways. It is also an amazing way to express one’s self without words.
Q: Why is it important to you for dance to be accessible to adults with special needs?
A: I think that there are not enough options for adults with special needs to express themselves. Of course, the Special Olympics is an awesome program and the day groups are very important and offer activities, but if someone isn’t particularly athletic or doesn’t enjoy the work, this is another option that might ignite something within them.
Q: I understand you had a very close friend who had special needs when you were growing up? How was this friendship formative for you?
A: I have two very close friends; one who I grew up with and another who I looked after when she was young and now we only live a couple of miles away from one another. The friend I looked after inspired me to do this program. Growing up with these two ladies taught me so much, not only about needs that they had in order to flourish, but they also taught me about happiness, frustration and unconditional love.
Q: What did witnessing your friend’s transition to adulthood help you understand about her life and the lives of others with special needs?
A: I feel the most important aspect of transitioning from child to adult is having the opportunity to still grow. Like all of us, if we do not have enough to do or focus on, we end up spending our days either in front of the television or on our phones. Like I said previously, there are not enough choices in activities for adults with special needs to find their true passion.
Q: Your organization has mentioned studies that show that discuss health issues for adults with special needs. Where are these studies from? And what are some of the benefits of an adaptive dance program like yours?
A: The studies we’re referring to have been published in peer-reviewed scientific journals over the past couple of decades. As we were researching the need for the program, we were struck by one study in particular, published in Public Health Reports journal in 2004. It focused on health disparities between adults with and without developmental disabilities. The study broke down all the barriers to accessing health care for those with developmental disabilities and discussed the differences in health care received, consistency of care, preventable mortality rates, and the accessibility of exercise facilities and programs, among other things. ...
An activity like dance, which involves physical exercise and artistic expression, makes an especially strong impact for those who have historically faced many more obstacles to accessing exercise and health care. Those circumstances leave a lot of room to make a big difference in both health and happiness. This program is not only physically very beneficial, but is also going to allow the participants to be creative and express themselves through the art of dance.
Q: How is your approach as an instructor different in these classes than in classes that aren’t adaptive?
A: The focus of these classes will be less concentrated on the technical aspects of dance and more so on the artistic and expressive side. Also, we will be experimenting with more styles of dance within one class than we normally do.
Q: What issues are you trying to bring awareness to through this program? And what do you hope this awareness does?
A: I feel that people generally underestimate the ability of people who are labeled with having special needs. I hope that we are able to educate the public and reduce the amount of prejudgment that comes along with having this label.
I hope that this program brings the kind of awareness that shows that just because someone needs extra help, it doesn’t mean that they are incapable. After all, everyone has a “special need” to some extent, and I think the more aware people are of the different kinds of disabilities that exist, the more accepting the world will become. Everyone has something special to offer. I think that sometimes people feel uncomfortable around people with special needs because they are not sure how to act. I am hoping that by being able to show off what these participants are able to achieve, people will have a conversation-opener and/or the participants will be able to communicate to others about something that they are passionate about.
Q: What are some of the common stigmas you want to reduce?
A: Adults with special needs can only accomplish something with constant supervision and help. This program will show others that there is a whole lot of thought and creativity within people with special needs, even if they are unable to express it in the same way that others are able to.
Q: What has this work taught you about yourself?
A: That I need to allow for mistakes, and I cannot always be perfect.
Q: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
A: Try your best!
Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?
A: That I am not as laid back as I seem — if they even think that.
Q: Describe your ideal San Diego weekend.
A: I love to look around Old Town, which is where I got married, and then a good Mexican restaurant.