Nicolina Lawson didn’t plan to make her dance studio, Ballet North Texas, one of the city’s first accessible performance spaces for disabilities. “The whole idea was that I wanted anybody to feel like they could enter the theater,” the former ballerina says. But what began as just one sensory-friendly performance of The Nutcracker grew into something larger.
The daughter of a professional ballerina, Lawson says she “literally grew up in the studio.” She herself danced professionally in Europe for more than four years, until a nearly career-ending ankle injury brought her back to the States at 23. She spent the rest of her performing career freelancing in Alaska and Texas before settling in Dallas in 2017. By that time, her onstage career was coming to an end, but she wanted to produce one more show with seven other out-of-work dancers. “Then the one show turned into a season, turned into six years later, and here we are,” she says.
Along the way, in 2019, Lawson launched a dance school and decided to stage that special sensory-friendly performance of The Nutcracker. She had friends with autistic children, and she wanted them to feel safe. So she made sure that triggers—big sounds and loud music—were softened. “The idea is to get rid of any possible fears or anything that might distract them from the rest of the performance,” she says. About 250 people came. One mother cried because her child was able to sit through the whole thing.
BNT now regularly stages sensory-sensitive shows, and they sell out weeks in advance. Lawson is working with Sensory Access, a Seattle nonprofit, to put together booklets about each show. The goal is to provide plot outlines, noting when surprising or noisy things may occur, like an exploding confetti cannon. Eventually, she’ll include a music playlist and videos, so audience members can familiarize themselves with potential sensitivity triggers before the show. “The more you’re aware of what’s going to happen, the less shock it is to your system, right?” Lawson says. “Like putting your feet in a cold pool.”
After that first Nutcracker, parents began asking if their disabled children could take classes. Lawson has since taught a young ballerina in a walker and one in a wheelchair. And she now offers weekly sensory-friendly classes taught by instructors who are trained how to handle different situations and redirect meltdowns while also teaching pliés and tendus.
Several other groups in town, such as Dallas Children’s Theater and North Texas Performing Arts, have followed suit and expanded their accessible offerings. For Lawson, each attempt to welcome and assist someone new is part of a needed evolution. “You just ebb and flow and make it happen,” she says. “If they want to be here, we make it so they can be here.”
Keeping It Calm
With every change she makes for a sensory-friendly show, Lawson asks, “What can we modify?” The main thing is to make potential triggers less jarring while still allowing folks to enjoy the show. Here are a few things they do.
1. There are longer light transitions for scenes.
2. House lights are kept at 50 percent.
3. Music and other sounds are reduced.
4. Audience members can move and talk.
5. Duplicates of masks or props are placed in the lobby so audience members can familiarize themselves with them before the show.
This story originally appeared in the February issue of D Magazine with the headline “A Quieter Dance.” Write to [email protected].