Carolina Conversations: Sensory Performance with Gary Taylor Dance

by Crissy Neville

Everyone likes to have a place to belong: Athletes play on sports teams; children go to playgroups; college students convene for coffee. Adults join churches, clubs and civic groups. We have friends on Facebook and followers on Twitter. And during the holidays, where else do we go, but home, to where we belong. 

Persons with exceptionalities are no different; they want to belong, too. Beyond their diagnoses, symptoms and behavior, adults and children with special needs have the same basic needs as the rest of us, including that of interaction with others and for love and belonging. For those with an autism spectrum disorder, finding the right niche outside of one’s family can be hard due to the individual’s marked difficulties in behavior, social interactions, communication, and sensory sensitivities — all traits of the developmental disorder.

But sometimes, situations fall right into place, whether intentional or not, and bonds form, dots connect. No matter the avenue, the sentiments are the same: belonging to something, or to someone, is simply the best. 

Ditto that for the Mays family of Pinehurst, who found belonging and a second family in Gary Taylor Dance. Syncing with something that could capture the interest and attention of their middle child, Brooks, was important to parents Katie and Brooks Mays. It was equally important that Brooks, and the whole family, feel accepted in the activity, too. Fifteen-year-old Brooks has autism and according to his mother, has not always felt welcome in every setting, and in accompanying him places, nor has she. Not true at this Pinehurst dance studio, whose signature holiday performance is a family affair for the Mays and has become a true place for “little” Brooks to belong. OutreachNC’s Crissy Neville chatted with Katie May recently about how very this positive story came to be.

Crissy Neville: You have a talented family, Katie. Can you tell me about them and how your family came to all be involved with Gary Taylor Dance?

Katie May: My husband Brooks and I moved to Pinehurst 12 years ago with his job. He is an endocrinologist with Pinehurst Medical Clinic. At the time, our daughter, Caroline, was 5 years old and wanted to dance. We heard great things about Gary Taylor Dance and so, we enrolled her there. It was 2010, GTD’s first year of performing Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite” at Pinecrest High School in Southern Pines. The executive director, Rita Taylor, invited me and my husband to have parts, too. So, the three of us were onstage for the first two years of the show and then the third year, Caroline played the role of Clara and I became a backstage helper to be of more assistance to her and others. That same year, my husband was cast in the role of the Grandfather for the first act. We have been in those same roles ever since, but of course, Caroline is what got us all into dance and her roles have changed through the years. My sons were too young then and could only sit and watch, but in time, they joined in, too.

CN: Your son Brooks has autism, and it sounds like you were especially glad for him to find this new passion. Please tell me more about him and how the dance and theater involvement has been a positive force in his life.

KM: Yes, Brooks has classic autism, diagnosed at age 2. I would say he is in the middle range of the spectrum. He has always been a fairly social kid; he likes being around energy and things going on, but his behaviors in those situations are not age-appropriate. He is in 10th grade but his actual academic level is more that of a fifth or sixth-grader. So, he is intellectually behind but he has strengths in visual ability, memory and music, so those are areas we try to build off. His preference is for technology, though, primarily video games and computers. Being in the Nutcracker has helped him spend time away from a screen. The performance gives him more to do and more time around people. The show has been so positive for him; it has helped him learn to behave in more appropriate ways and has helped a lot with his social and communication skills. He is a good kid and just needed a chance to help. I am so glad that the opportunity finally occurred. 

CN: That is such an inspiration! What does do Brooks do backstage to help and how did he become a part of the crew, too?

KM: About 2014, my younger son Robbie, at age 8, started performing, along with Caroline. So then, we all had a role or job, except Brooks who then was still sitting and watching as he had for the last five years. Then one of the stagehands noticed his keen interest in the props and stage setup and asked Brooks if he wanted to help and he certainly did. From that point on, the stage crew let him take part. Brooks is an honorary backstage person; he helps set up for the beginning of the show. He probably knows the cues for the show better than the director; he is great with visual memory like that. He’s been a helper now for the last five years. 

CN: You mentioned Brooks’ ability in music, memorization and visual acuity. Did you feel he had a propensity for the arts even before he became a volunteer? 

KM: Yes,he has always liked the arts. We communicated a lot through music when he was younger because we could not understand what he was saying. He knew very few words but was very good at repeating back music. His memory skills help; he knows the Nutcracker music through and through. He also has the show set memorized and knows exactly where each prop goes, when the curtains move and which songs cue a change. Another artistic strength is in visual recreations; he likes to draw and is a visual learner. He recreates the scenes at home for fun and plays the musical score all year; I would say he has useful skills for the theater.

CN: Would you define this experience as something very positive in your son’s life and in the life of your family?

KM: Yes, we are a dance and theater family, for sure. Brooks looks forward to the show and likes that we do it together.
It gives him a lot of pride to be part of something and to have something to do; he has a role now. He is not just the extra person hanging out anymore. He has even been involved in a few productions over at North Moore High School thanks to another dance mom, Kimberly Fielder Jones, who directs the shows there. It has been very motivating for Brooks and encouraging for all of us as we consider the future.

It is very positive for Brooks to have theater in his life, but the rest of us love it, too. It is a tradition for us; my husband’s entire family comes at Thanksgiving to see us all perform. 

As a senior, this is Caroline’s last year in the Nutcracker. Robbie, in eighth grade, has this season and four more. Having siblings in the production has helped each one stay in longer and come into it earlier. As for Brooks, we hope this could be something that he will be able to do for a long time to come, as he continues to mature and gain independence.

CN: To spread more positivity, I understand GTD is holding a special performance this year of the Nutcracker so more youth like Brooks can enjoy the show. Can you tell me more about this unique performance?

KM: Yes! GTD is offering this unique performance for students and adults with autism and other sensory sensitivities Wednesday, Nov. 27, at 10:30 a.m., just before the official show opening. The show, now held at Sandhills Community College, will feature reduced lighting and sound, a reduced price for admission, and an atmosphere conducive for audience members to move around as needed. It will be a shortened show, too. We will have trained volunteers to help with children who may need to take a break from the show in a special area with bean bags set us for this purpose — close enough so they can still hear the music and return when ready. Nationally-recognized TDF Accessibility Programs, which specializes in sensory-friendly shows, is providing us with guidance and resources. As senior dancers, my daughter Caroline and another student, Juliette Neveu, are assisting by securing volunteers and making visual materials. It is a group effort.

This will be a great time for adults and students with special needs to experience the arts without judgment from others for their behaviors, perhaps opening up new doors as it did for my family. We want them to have a place they feel welcome, a place to belong. All are welcome! Go to https://taylordance.org/ to find out more.