Paige Braden started taking dance for therapy; now she’s leading the class

Paige Braden gets ready to lead her students through a dance routine.
Paige Braden gets ready to lead her students through a dance routine.

Six years ago, northeast Johnson County native Paige Braden fell in love with dance through a special program for students with developmental disabilities. Today, she’s leading a class of her own and helping some of her peers discover dance as well.

Braden, who has autism, was one of the first students to participate in the Project Access Dance Class, the brainchild of University of Kansas Medical Center Occupational Therapy Assistant Professor Becky Nicholson. With the help of Erin Lustig, the artistic director at Seamless Dance Theatre, Project Access was able to provide a forum and professional instruction for students with a variety of special needs.

“This kind of population is not going to just walk into a regular studio and just take a dance class,” Nicholson said.

As Braden got older — she graduated from SM East last year and is now in the Shawnee Mission School District’s transition services program for 18 to 21 year olds — Nicholson and Braden’s family recognized a need to transition her out of the original class, which was made up of mostly younger students. She started working with the dance team from Olathe North, which put together a class for older students with special needs. But by this past spring, Nicholson and Lustig had decided it was time for Braden to take the next step.

“I said, you know, it’s time for her to start teaching a class. She loves dance, and this is what she wants to be,” Nicholson said. “We’re hoping this will actually turn into a paid position for her because we’ve had lots of interest from the community of her coming to teach.”

So for the past several weeks, Braden has been taking the front of the studio each Tuesday at the Star Struck Performing Arts Center in Lenexa each Tuesday, where she instructs clients from Mosaic of Northeast Kansas in a variety of dance moves. Take a look:

Nicholson said Paige has been a natural in the role.

“They really respond to her and they take direction from her,” she said.

As for Braden, she couldn’t be happier.

“I like the dance class because it makes me feel like I’m in heaven,” she said.

Braden’s father Mark said the program has been an important part of Paige’s life, combining her natural gift for dance with therapy and a meaningful role.

“It’s just been a wonderful marriage of her gift, and therapy and opportunity,” Mark said. “As parents, we are beyond thrilled.”