Free ballet classes offered through Bronxville Ballet Not for Sale

Tamara Pagan beams with pride as she watches her 3-year-old daughter Ava Corlette dance around their home.

As if spending the majority of her short life navigating lockdowns and quarantines hasn’t been difficult enough, Ava has the added challenge of navigating autism spectrum disorder.

Dancing, however, has helped with both.

“It helps her in all facets of her development,” Pagan said. “She’s become very confident.”

Ava first started ballet lessons at her preschool, the New York Institute for Special Education Readiness Program in the Bronx.

The ballet lessons she takes at the Readiness Program are only available because of Bronxville Ballet Not for Sale, a nonprofit that provides free ballet lessons, shoes and dresses to kids with special needs and kids without special needs who wouldn’t be able to afford ballet otherwise. Not for Sale stems from Bronxville Ballet, both founded by Ana Dimas.

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Over 200 kids get ballet lessons through Not for Sale in different programs in New York City, Westchester and the Caribbean. In addition to Ava’s school, Not for Sale offers its free classes at Yonkers’ Dayspring Community Center, Columbia University’s Double Discovery Center, at West Point for military families and at a school in St. Maarten.

Dimas is also open to offering classes at more locations if other programs are interested.

At Dayspring Community Center, the nonprofit offered free lessons to kids who might not be able to afford them otherwise. Not for Sale students there wrapped up their first season in the program with a mid-December performance of “The Nutcracker.”

“They wanted to bring ballet into a community that probably never experienced ballet before,” JC Soto, the community center’s director, said of Not for Sale. That aligned with Dayspring’s goal of exposing kids to the arts.

The opportunity for kids who come to Dayspring to practice ballet, which has long been accessible to only those who can afford it, is a “godsend,” Soto said.

Around 30 kids participated in Dayspring’s first season with Not for Sale and they also got free ballet shoes, Soto said.

Dancing with purpose

Dimas’ desire to use ballet to help kids stemmed from her own experience. As a child, Dimas suffered from chronic earaches, which affected her speech and learning.

Her world changed when her speech therapist suggested she try a dance class.

“Dance was really a therapeutic and safe environment for me,” Dimas said.

She went on to major in dance at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and in 2012 started Bronxville Ballet, where she offers classes in tap, ballet and jazz. But six years later, Dimas wanted to offer classes to kids who couldn’t afford it and to kids with special needs, so she started Bronxville Ballet Not for Sale.

Through Not for Sale, Dimas finds new challenges. How do you teach a blind child to gallop, for instance, if they’ve never seen a horse?

And she exposes her students to dancers who look like them, taking her New York City students, many of whom are Black or Latino, to see the Brooklyn Ballet’s Nutcracker, which is a more culturally diverse production than many.

‘They can do it’

At the Readiness Program, Ava is one of dozens of other kids who have benefitted from Dimas’ weekly classes. Many students at the school have autism or have speech and language issues.

Many of the students receive occupational and physical therapy, said Principal Nancy Finkel, both of which focus on body awareness and movement. Ballet has been beneficial for her students in a lot of ways, but a major benefit is being able to learn and practice movements, she said.

The classes can be challenging and students need help at the start, said Finkel, who has been in the field for over four decades. But as the weeks go by, newer teachers are surprised by how quickly students improve, Finkel said.

Once they see how much the kids improve, they realize what’s possible: “They can do it,” she said.

Joan Fallon, assistant principal at the Readiness Program, usually gathers the students to take them to ballet. She knows they’re excited to go when they stand up and point their toes or do a twirl.

Pagan said the classes have helped Ava’s respect for personal space, her posture and breathing, and her ability to follow directions.

Since she loved the lessons so much, Pagan enrolled her in dance classes outside of the school, too.

And now, Pagan said, “she’s always dancing.”

Contact Diana Dombrowski at Follow her on Twitter at @domdomdiana.

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