Dance therapist Jessica Zippin ’07 was recently featured in the October 2015 edition of Dance Teacher Magazine for her work as the director of the dance/movement therapy program of the Douglas Watt Family Fund for the Performing Arts. The article, “The Power of Dance,” discusses how Zippin uses dance as a therapeutic tool to help children with autism, cognitive and/or severe emotional disabilities to use their bodies to communicate their needs more effectively.
Joining the program in 2011, Zippin currently works with more than 70 children with special needs in two New York City schools. The dance/movement therapy program was founded in 2010 and is funded by the annual Douglas Watt Family Fund for the Performing Arts.
“What makes this session so essential isn’t that the children are acquiring technical dance skills,” the article says. “Instead, it’s that dance therapy serves as a conduit to myriad other life skills: They gain self-awareness and body control while participating in a joyful group.”
Zippin explains that her goal is to not only bring this type of dance therapy to more schools in New York City, but eventually to build a classroom model that can be replicated in schools nationwide.
“This specific group of children cannot always express their needs,” Zippin told Dance Magazine. “But they do express themselves in other ways, often through screaming or tantrums. We need to understand what that is and help them use their bodies to communicate more clearly.”
Despite the “freer” nature of her dance sessions, Zippin uses a general structure with each group of students to ensure that they can transition back into academic work. Before the start of every dance/therapy session, Zippin greets each child individually, and then begins with a “gentle” warm-up. Zippin customizes each class according to the functional level of its students.
“There’s a therapeutic aspect to dance,” Zippin explains. “We’re in our bodies all day, but we usually don’t recognize how we’re moving – and what that communicates. I wanted to help people understand that nonverbal aspect.”
After warming-up, the class begins more lively movement, taking turns leading and following, or following the music’s directions. At the end of each class, students listen to a cooldown piece that prepares them for return to their academic coursework.
The article explains that Zippin’s class is “directly integrated” with what the schools are helping the students learn in regular classes, such as taking turns, following multiple step directions, social interaction and requests. In the article, classroom teacher Laura Hooghuis explained that unlike traditional classes, students tend to be more engaged and receptive in Zippin’s dance classes because “they’re so excited about the dance aspect.”
Zippin graduated with a B.A. in dance and media and society, and went on to receive her M.A. in dance therapy from Pratt Institute. At HWS, she was part of the Koshare Dance Collective, and also choreographed a performance of “Cats” with students at Geneva High School.