New inclusive course culminates with spring performances

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A new course at Penn State brings together students with disabilities, students pursuing careers to support people with disabilities, and students studying theatre.

The class, Supporting Communication Through Performance, is offered through the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders (CSD) and examines how various types of performance activities, such as dance, voice and musical theater, can support communication and participation by people with and without intellectual disabilities. 

The course will culminate with two performances:

  • 9 a.m., April 21, Café Laura, Mateer Building
  • 6:30 p.m., April 25, Ruth Pike Auditorium, Biobehavioral Health Building

Both events are free and open to the public.

Students enrolled in the course are from Penn State’s College of Health and Human Development, the College of Arts and Architecture, and the State College Area School District (SCASD) LifeLink program at Penn State. LifeLink PSU, a partnership between SCASD and the Penn State College of Education, enables qualified SCASD students with disabilities, ages 18-21, to sit in on classes at University Park. Penn State students volunteer as their mentors.

Supporting Communication Through Performance is led by Krista Wilkinson, professor of communication sciences and disorders, and Medora Ebersole, education and community programs manager for the Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State.

Students dancing

A new course in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders uses dance to support communication and participation by people with and without intellectual disabilities.

Image: Dennis Maney

LifeLink PSU students in the course learn how to perform in front of other people while also developing specific skills, such as vocal performance, improvisation, and dance. LifeLink PSU student Will Fogelsanger said the experience is priming him for his goal to become a stand-up comedian.

“This class is preparing me to be in front of a crowd and for physical humor styles, like you see with Jim Carrey and in 'Saturday Night Live' sketches,” Fogelsanger said.

LifeLink PSU student Hannah Gray enjoys the course because it allows her to study activities she finds fulfilling.

“Singing is my life,” Gray said. “I’m a dancing machine.”

For CSD students, the course provides an opportunity to learn different performance styles and how performance and communication are interlinked. 

“I have an interest in working with the special needs population once I become a speech therapist,” said CSD student Marissa Madel. “The course allows me to work with this population and also learn about the relationship between communication and performance. This is an opportunity that I do not think many students have and I am grateful for the opportunity to participate and learn.”

Students dancing

Hannah Provisor, a musical theatre major, leads her classmates through a dance routine for the course Supporting Communication through Performance. 

Image: Dennis Maney

For theatre students, the course allows them to work with a diverse group, including students with disabilities. For Hannah Provisor, a musical theatre major, the experience is helping her establish a potential career path.

“I’m very interested in art therapy, and I felt that with my extensive background in musical theatre, this sort of music-drama therapy could be a way to bridge that gap,” Provisor said. “I was interested in bringing what I know to a community that could benefit from it, while simultaneously learning about people with intellectual disabilities and how to address their needs.”

The class also builds global competency through a lecture demonstration from Bale Folclorico da Bahia and Artistic Director Walson Botelho. Students received a historic overview of hip-hop and break dancing, and learned capoeira, a game created by African slaves who were brought to Brazil starting in the 16th century.

Students also explore how evidence-based practices for language support can be incorporated into fun and age-appropriate activities such as improvisation, vocal exercises, learning dance steps, and performing capoeira — a dance technique in which the players are never to take their eyes off each other and must always be aware of what is happening.

Additionally, three content experts from Penn State led class periods over the course of the semester.

In January, Norman Spivey, professor of voice and voice pedagogy in the School of Music at Penn State, taught students vocal exercises and discussed the importance of posture, volume and breath in effective self-presentation.

The lessons were integrated into all of the songs the group performs, most particularly “Story of Tonight” from Hamilton and “Circle of Life” from the Lion King. 

In February, Michele Dunleavy, associate professor of dance in the School of Theatre at Penn State, led the group in jazz and tap dancing, which the group integrated into a number from the musical "Aladdin."

In March, Kikora Franklin, associate professor of theatre and dance in the School of Theatre, introduced students to hip-hop dance, which forms the basis for the students’ sampling of “My Shot” from Hamilton.

Students performing in costumes

The course Supporting Communication through Performance culminates with two performances in April. 

Image: Dennis Maney

After the expert sessions, theatre students Provisor and Maggie Malaney were responsible for working with their fellow classmates to develop the final numbers that will be performed in the shows.

Students also participate in small group reflection sessions.

“The class incorporates many art education concepts, such as bifocalism — looking at two things at once, or flipping back and forth between two lenses for points of alignment and intersection,” Ebersole said.

Instructors are documenting the choreography and improvisational exercises to create a curriculum for students to take with them for possible use as enrichment teachers or clinicians.

“From my perspective, this course is an amazing experience and I think every one of us is learning more than we ever imagined,” Wilkinson said. 

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Last Updated June 21, 2017