Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Seven Year Old Jack Barlow Will Be the First Child With Down Syndrome to Dance in The Nutcracker


Jack in his Nutcracker costume. 
The hottest ticket in town right now is to The Nutcracker, especially for the 7:30 PM show on December 14 and the 2:00 PM show on December 17 or for two student matinees. Why? Well, seven year old Jack Barlow will make dance history that day. And it’s kind of a big deal in the dance world.

Ashley Meier Barlow is Jack’s mother. She says, “We think he may be the third person with Down syndrome to be included in a major production by a ballet company and we think he is the first child. So it’s big news.” That is huge news.

So how did all of this happen, you ask?

Ashley says that Jack has been involved in a program since its inception a few years ago called Ballet Moves, a program run by the Cincinnati Ballet and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital that specifically addresses the developmental needs of children with Down syndrome.



Jack and his dance partner.

She says, “There is a Cincinnati Ballet instructor to support the physical therapist and a physical therapy student from Children’s Hospital. So he has done this since its inception. He is now in his fourth season. The purpose is to foster dance across abilities. They hope that Jack’s inclusion in The Nutcracker is a step for inclusion for their inclusionary work with the ballet. That class is amazing. It is by far the best activity he does….because it is tailored to his specific needs. The therapist coordinates with the teacher from the ballet to create activities that are Down syndrome specific.” For example, a lot of kids with Down syndrome have trouble crossing mid-line so there are dance moves and activities to address that. The same goes for skipping and hop scotch. It’s a wonderful program that develops physical abilities and confidence.

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Last spring, Ashley had a light hearted conversation with Julie Sunderman, the Cincinnati Ballet Director of Education.  Ashley remembers the conversation. “You know, I like to tease, so at the end of the year [last spring], I said to Julie Sunderland, ‘I think we are going to home school so we can move to Russia so we can concentrate on ballet.’ She said, ‘Maybe he should be in The Nutcracker.’” At that moment they shared a light bulb moment. The idea percolated for a while and after some discussion “we decided to throw Jack into the role and see what happens,” says Ashley.

Mom says that Jack “loves the stage. He enjoys the spotlight. He’s a ham. He’s very extroverted. We call him Hurricane Jack, you know. He loves it. He is so engaged. We are cautiously optimistic that he will do well once the lights are on.” 

Jack will not have a teacher on stage to guide him so he will have remember his moves and not be distracted by the audience.  He is in a party scene. Actually he is cast as Party Boy #1. “If he performs exactly as he is supposed to, then that’s ideal, but if he doesn’t that’s okay too because children” may behave differently under pressure. He is, after all, only seven years old. A seven year old with a winning smile who radiates joy.

Jack’s character was created for him so the choreography changed to accommodate him. In Jack’s scene, the Cry Baby will cry.  An adult will walk her over to Jack so he can dance with her after which he waves goodbye to her. The Father will raise him up and Jack will blow a celebratory bugle. And then he is finished with his scene. It will be exciting. Now only will an engaging boy charm the audience but it will also set a precedence for inclusion in the professional dance world. She says, “It’s pretty exciting and groundbreaking really.” 
Jack works on his dance with The Father. 


When Ashley Meier Barlow was pregnant with Jack she told God, “‘If you give me this baby then I will knock it out of the ballpark. Whatever baby you give me.’ Well, this is one of the moments. This is bigger than Jack being in The Nutcracker. It speaks volumes for inclusion. It speaks volumes for the confidence the Cincinnati Ballet has in people with disabilities. I think it speaks volumes for life! This is a culmination of so many wonderful factors.” 

Jack’s story has appeared on local media and some national media outlets have expressed an interest. But as much fun as this story is, it is significant that this happen during the holidays. It is a Christmas gift to all of us worthy of a Christmas story. Ashley Barlow says, “It is a reflection of the season in real life. It’s about joy and peace and the celebration of children.”  And we need to celebrate the wonder and joy in children.

O. Henry ended “The Gift of the Magi” with “Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.” And Jack Barlow is one such gift.



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