North Carolina Kids with Special Needs Enjoy Special Sensory-Friendly Version of 'The Nutcracker': 'Dance Is for Everyone'
“We just want our kids to be part of something normal and this is something really special," Jacqueline Whipple tells PEOPLE
Jacqueline Whipple struggles to find places she can take her four kids. All adopted, three of them are special needs. Eight-year-old Brady has prosthetic limbs and autism. Ava, also 8, is a little person. And Jessa, just 3, has spina bifida and gets around in a wheelchair.
“It’s practically impossible to go anywhere special. We have so many different needs. Our kids are each very uniquely different and it’s hard in general to take kids to events. You throw in curveballs like the various special needs we have and it becomes very improbable.”
So the former pediatric nurse-turned stay at home mom jumped at the chance to take her kids to a special performance of The Nutcracker.
“It’s so amazing that they’re doing this,” she says of the Charlotte Ballet’s one-time special sensory-friendly version of The Nutcracker.
The Director of Education and Outreach for the Charlotte Ballet, Bianca Harris, first heard about the idea two years ago and has been working to make it happen ever since.
There are a handful cross the country, including Ohio, Pittsburgh and New York City.
“Oh my gosh it feels good, it feels so good to be doing this!” Harris tells PEOPLE.
The theatre made several adjustments – the music wasn’t live so it could be controlled and not as loud. The house lights weren’t completely turned off and some of the louder parts of the show were completely cut out. There were also designated quiet areas in the theatre so the kids could get out of their seats and the orchestra pit was transformed into a space for wheelchairs. Kids with autism were given what’s called “fidget toys.”
“They did a really great job accommodating all the children,” Whipple tells PEOPLE. “Ava had stars in her eyes and at one point she was standing at the very front of the stage looking at the lead dancer. She loved it!”
The 200 dancers and all the volunteers for that day all got special training and the dancers say they were excited to perform this special version of the classic. This is already an exciting season for them – a $1 million donation meant they have all new costumes and sets for an elaborate show that’s getting rave reviews.
Jamie Clifton is going into her eighth season with the Charlotte Ballet and dances the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker. “I’ve never done a sensory-friendly experience and was really excited about it,” she tells PEOPLE. “Dance is for everyone and we try to make it accessible to everyone and it feels good to share this with as many people as possible.”
She has a family member with Asperger’s and knows the challenges families can face.
“It’s awesome that we’re doing this. It truly speaks to our wanting to be as inclusive as possible,” Clifton says.
Whipple was thrilled her kids finally got to take part in the holiday tradition so many others love.
“We just want our kids to be part of something normal and this is something really special. My kids loved it. It was really phenomenal!” she says.