Courtesy photo: Peconic Ballet Theater.

When she opened Peconic Ballet Theater in 2012, Christiana Bitonti’s mission was to make dance accessible to everyone, regardless of the student’s ability – or disability.

This year, that dream has become a reality.

For the first time in a winter production, students of all abilities danced alongside one another in Peconic Ballet’s performance of The Nutcracker last weekend, thanks to the launch of a new program designed especially for students with intellectual and development disabilities.

“I just couldn’t believe that there’s not classes offered for this population of students,” Bitonti said in an interview this week. “I wanted to make that opportunity alive for them.”

The theater foundation’s new program, Dance Express, was launched this year in conjunction with East End Disability Associates. The 10-week program drew six adult students for its first semester this fall, and Bitonti hopes to add a second program for children in the spring as well.

“I feel like everyone has something to share,” Bitonti said. “I just want people with disabilities to have the same opportunities as everyone else.”

Courtesy photo: Peconic Ballet Theater.

After earning her master’s degree in counseling at New York University, Bitonti has long been looking for ways to marry her passion for dance with her experience working with differently-abled students.

“With my dance and my degree, I saw there was a need for this,” Bitonti said.

Almost all of the six students who enrolled in the program had never taken a dance class before, and none of them had danced for an audience on stage. But by the end of the 10 weeks, Bitonti said, “they were the stars of everything.”

“They literally shined during the performance,” she said. “Ten weeks isn’t that long of a time to learn choreography, never mind how to dance in general. For them to pick up the choreography, go up on stage and dance for the first time in front of an audience – they did beautifully.”

The Dance Express students performed in the Nutcracker production alongside students from all of the school’s other classes, Bitonti said, because “the whole mission of our school is to embody all students.”

“Dance should be offered to everybody,” she said. “I don’t want any limitations for anyone.”

Courtesy photo: Peconic Ballet Theater.

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Katie, winner of the 2016 James Murphy Cub Reporter of the Year award from the L.I. Press Club, is a co-publisher of RiverheadLOCAL. A Riverhead native, she is a 2014 graduate of Stony Brook University. Email Katie