A neurodegenerative disease makes walking and balancing difficult for Sarah Hansen, but she recently achieved her dream of dancing as the Sugar Plum Fairy in the "Nutcracker" — a feat that seemed impossible just three years ago.
"I loved dancing as the Sugar Plum Fairy," Hansen, 18, told TODAY via text. "I was a little nervous at the start of the dance, but I find when I dance on stage or just dance in my room — no matter how much I stumble — it is the closest to flying I have ever gotten."
While dancing frees Hansen, her ballet teacher, Bonnie Schlachte, 47, marvels at how far her student has come in seven years.
“It is just so dramatic to see,” Schlachte told TODAY. “I am so incredibly beyond proud of her."
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Schlachte teaches Hansen ballet at Ballet for All Kids, which she founded in 2008 to make ballet accessible for children with developmental and physical disabilities. Ballet for All Kids melds Schlachte’s professional loves — she trained as a ballet dancer and worked with children and adults with developmental disabilities.
About seven years ago, Hansen’s parents discovered Ballet for All Kids’ Los Angeles location and enrolled their daughter in classes. The young woman has always loved ballet. When she was in kindergarten she announced to her class that she would someday dance as the sugar plum fairy.
“You can just see her love of ballet and love of dance. It just shines through her,” said Schlachte.
For much of her life, though, Hansen’s dreams seemed unattainable. When she first started, she struggled to walk without holding onto her mother. She couldn’t stand without holding onto a chair or a ballet bar. As she danced, Hansen had to hold onto chair or another dancer to balance.
For years doctors remained unsure of what caused her problems walking and balancing, but they finally diagnosed her with Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease (CMT), a neurodegenerative disease that affects motor and sensory nerves. Because of this, Hansen walks on the side of her right foot and her ankles are weaker. She struggled to put her heel down on the floor, making it impossible for her to walk without tumbling over. But Hansen kept returning to ballet class.
“What’s really amazing about Sarah is she works super hard,” said Schlachte. “The ballet is very very motivating to her.”
In 2012, she took her first wobbly steps across the room unassisted, a huge accomplishment. But it wasn’t until 2014 when she was finally able put her foot down.
“She was crying. I was crying. Her mom was in the room, she was crying,” said Schlachte. “It was a very exciting moment.”
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After those years of ballet training, Hansen’s body just understood what to do and did it. Along with her physical and occupational therapy, ballet has transformed her ability to move. She can walk better and perform in recitals without as much help. And, she walked across the stage to receive her high school diploma.
“She shows so much bravery and tenacity,” said Schlachte. "I think she teaches me more than I teach her.”
Hansen's accomplishments seem even greater because she’s defying expectations.
“She just continues to improve, which is really strange,” said Schlachte. “With CMT, she should be getting worse and worse.”
While Hansen attends Biola University in Los Angeles, she practices ballet and Pilates at school and still attends weekly private classes. Hansen sometimes feels frustrated because she struggles to dance on one foot and probably can't dance en pointe, but Schlachte doesn't discount Hansen. She's already done so much!
“Sarah works really hard and, in the studio, we just focus on ballet technique. It really has helped her. It helped her walk,” Schlachte said.
While Hansen's proud of what's she's accomplished, she hopes her story encourages others think differently about people with disabilities.
"I've noticed disabled people being ignored, cast over, not listened to, excluded, and overall not treated as a peer. We are not to be pitied; we are to be realized as a contributing part of society. A person with a story instead of an object to pity," she said.