Patients “dance, dance, dance” in this therapy session

Patient Stories |


Riley dance therapy session

Occupational therapist Renee Callahan led two girls with cerebral palsy in a six-month dance/movement program that she hopes to expand to more patients in the future.

By Maureen Gilmer, Riley Children’s Health senior writer,

The girls are 6 and 13, both with cerebral palsy and both ready to rock it out in their wheelchairs at Riley Hospital for Children’s rehab gym on a Monday evening.

Riley outpatient occupational therapist Renee Callahan is leading a group therapy program on a trial basis that incorporates a passion of hers – dance.

Riley dance therapy session

Since December, she has been working with Micaiah Flory and Isabelle Jones weekly to put together a performance for parents and family on the last day of the program.

The goal is to combine music and dance in warmups, games and routines to improve visual motor skills, motor coordination, muscular endurance, strength and internal rhyming and timing, Callahan said.

Added benefits include improved self-expression, confidence and social-emotional skills.

“I have danced my whole life,” said Callahan, who developed a dance-fitness program for Special Olympics Indiana during her OT doctoral capstone. “It has been my goal to incorporate dance with my OT practice because dance has several physiological and psychological benefits.”

Doing it in a group setting is new within Riley rehab, she said, and it’s something she hopes to expand in the next session to more patients with an occupational and physical therapy plan of care. The program doesn’t replace traditional therapy; it complements it.

“It brings me joy to watch these children achieve their OT goals through the modality of dance,” Callahan said.

Isabelle and Micaiah didn’t know each other before the program started six months ago, but they’ve become fast friends during these Monday sessions.

“Nervous? Or excited,” an onlooker asks the girls before the show begins.

“Both,” says Isabelle, as she waits for her parents and grandmother to take their seats.

Meanwhile, Micaiah resists her dad’s attempt to fix her ponytail, ready to get her groove on as only she can.

The one-hour session begins with warmups set to a lively beat.

“We start with marches,” Callahan directs the girls. “Get those knees up. Now together, raise the roof, arms up!”

As one song ends, another begins, and the group moves into stretches.

“Look up, look down, to the side, switch. Shoulders up, down, alternate. Hands on hips, show me some sass, stretch to the side … “

Riley dance therapy session

As Callahan leads the class with a joyful energy that the girls match, the therapist takes time to help Micaiah follow along with her arm movements while the little girl bounces in her chair.

After warmups come games, also set to music, followed by the dance portion of the program.

To the beat of Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off,” the girls incorporate several of the movements they practiced in warmups – rolling their shoulders, clapping, twisting, reaching high and low and freestyle.

Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling” sets the mood for more “dance, dance, dance” as the girls move to the beat, stretching and giggling throughout.

The cool-down taps into some of those same muscles, from their heads to their toes, this time to the tune of “Love Story,” by Swift.

Philip Flory said he learned the dance and exercise movements himself early on in the sessions just to get his daughter engaged in the program, but Micaiah has come a long way.

“I’ve seen an improvement in her strength and coordination but also just in her ability to participate and work with another child, to stretch out and have some fun,” he said. “Also, Isabelle has been there to encourage her and help her out.”

While this session has come to an end, Callahan said the goal is to get more kids and more therapists involved and to expand to a larger open space.

“I’ve seen a lot of improvement with these two, and it’s been a lot of fun,” she said. “I hope this provides an opportunity for kids with motor challenges to be involved in a dance movement-based class and also help with the socialization aspect and achieve their therapy goals, too.”

Photos and video by Mike Dickbernd, IU Health visual journalist,