Recently, after watching children and adults lose their inhibitions during a Community Art Sunday at the Center for Creative Action in East Austin, it occurred to me that I don’t have enough dancing, drumming, hula hooping, gleeful chasing, and chalk-drawing on sidewalks in my life.
It’s been a long time since I played tag at recess. And that’s not good.
I went to the Center for Creative Action on Sept. 27 to watch a mid-afternoon performance from Body Shift, a collaborative, mixed-ability dance project of Forklift Danceworks and VSA Texas. But I arrived early enough to first check out some of the other Community Art Sunday events on tap, primarily creative activities and games for children.
I was most drawn to an African hand-drumming circle led by Austinite Tonya Lyles. I’ve taken a couple of beginning African drumming classes from Sherry Gingras, who teaches at her Austin Drumz store, and my ears picked up the familiar language of gun and dun (pronounced “goon” and “doon”) from Lyles as she explained the basics of these bass beats to excited children and their parents.
The energy was contagious. My heart thumped hard, in rhythm with Lyles’ words and resounding beats. A thought hit me equally hard: I’m not happy when I’m not in motion. But I’m not talking about the motion of hurriedness. The motion of running errands, for example, and stressing out in traffic, or pacing around the house and flipping through TV channels because I’ve got too much on my mind to sit still.
I’m talking about the kind of motion I saw, felt, and heard from the toddlers and older children in the drum circle who couldn’t keep their hands, and drum sticks, off the drums placed before them. I’m talking about a joyful, internal motion that manifests physically. As Lyles taught the group rhythms and songs, there was no hesitation from any child, no apparent doubt about whether it was OK to participate, no question of doing it right or wrong.
There was just doing. There was just drumming, wild and fast from the children in the circle, little hands pounding on African drums.
As a kid, I thought drumming was the coolest thing ever. I recall the first time I held drumsticks in my hands, in the mid-1970s. I don’t remember how old I was, maybe 11 or 12, and I don’t remember where I was. Maybe at a friend’s or relative’s house. But somehow, I found myself in front of a drum kit. I timidly tapped out a simplistic rhythm. Drumming was a lot harder than it looked, and my future career with the rock band Bachman-Turner Overdrive definitely seemed in jeopardy.
But just touching the snare drum head with my fingers set my heart on fire. This was the kind of motion I craved.
Then there was recess at the little country school I attended on the South Plains of Texas near Lubbock. I lived for recess and the chance, several times a day, to play red rover and baseball and football and tetherball and a gazillion other games my elementary schoolmates and I invented.
My cousin Cynthia and I made up a recess game in which we sat on one end of a wooden seesaw and asked the boys to tie us to the seesaw with their belts. Then (at a certain age now, with aching joints, it’s beyond me how I ever considered this fun), the rodeo was on: The boys repeatedly banged the other end of the seesaw into the gravelly ground, trying to buck us off. And sometimes they did.
So. For the purposes of this blog post, and the safety of children on playgrounds everywhere, I’m not talking about the pursuit of this kind of haphazard motion. But I am talking about the kind of motion that involves spontaneous chases and merry-go-rounds and swing sets and slides, and seesaws, used properly, with a person on each end.
I’m talking about the kind of motion that involves dreaming. On cold, blustery days, of which there are plenty in the Texas Panhandle, my elementary classmates and I took full advantage of the wind. When gusts were blowing 40 mph or higher, we would throw on our coats, take off running across the huge playground, and thrust our jacketed arms above our heads like sails, believing we could fly. I swear, sometimes my feet left the ground.
That’s my kind of motion.
We played and danced, as only elementary school children can, with abandon, and to the music in our heads. But somewhere along the way this freedom of movement stopped, probably right around the first junior high dance where everybody stood against the gym wall, not quite sure how to dance to ZZ Top.
All of which brings me back to Body Shift, the mixed-ability dance project that includes improvisation classes, performance workshops, and choreography labs. The more I talk about Body Shift, and the involvement of my partner, Donna, the more I realize how many Austinites either haven’t heard of Body Shift and/or don’t understand it.
Some people seem uncomfortable talking about mixed-ability dance, which brings together people of all abilities and disabilities. There’s nothing charitable about Body Shift dancing, as in the misguided notion from some that able-bodied dancers are sacrificing their time out of kindness to be a part of this program.
My observation is this: Body Shift attracts people of all abilities who want to move with integrity, with an honesty of how one’s body works in any given moment and setting. Some people come to Body Shift with extensive dance experience, others come with none. But together, the participants generate tremendous motion, whether they’re dancing solo, in a duet, or in a group. At other times, the dancers generate motion by starting from stillness, then gradually moving a toe or a finger or a leg or an arm or blinking an eyelid, and then returning to stillness.
Body Shift is not fast motion for the sake of fast, or slow motion for the sake of slow. It’s simply motion, at any speed, played out on a landscape of inclusivity for every body. There’s great depth to this dance, and there’s great fun — an infectious playfulness that inspires confidence.
VSA Texas and Forklift Danceworks offer classes for all ages and levels, including Body Shift’s monthly mixed-ability Elements of Dance classes (details at www.bodyshift.org) and the Leaps & Bounds program (details at http://forkliftdanceworks.org/leaps-bounds) that partners with Austin schools to bring creative movement to classrooms.
If you want to get moving, these are great places to start.
The Goddess of Liberty statue replica atop the Texas Capitol dome in Austin was gently lowered into place on June 14, 1986, by a Mississippi National Guard helicopter. Two weeks earlier, as described by the Austin American-Statesman, Texas Army National Guard crews tried for two days to secure the statue with the use of a CH-47 Chinook helicopter.
But as the Statesman and other newspapers reported, including the New York Times, the Texas Army National Guard’s efforts were thwarted by gusting winds and the helicopter pilot’s inability to see below the aircraft in attempts to place the statue over a steel pole attached to the top of the dome. As detailed by the New York Times, the Mississippi National Guard came to the rescue with a Sikorsky CH54 Skycrane helicopter that offered better visibility for the pilot and a suspended line that could be raised or lowered, as opposed to a fixed line.
The replica replaced the original Goddess of Liberty statue, which was erected in 1888 and was showing damage and deterioration due to exposure to heat, rain, and wind. Under the oversight of The State Preservation Board, the original statue was removed by helicopter from the Texas Capitol dome in November 1985.
According to historical records from the Office of the Architect of the Capitol, the deterioration of the Goddess of Liberty was first noticed in 1983 when workers painting the statue’s pedestal noticed extensive cracks along the backs of her arms, hand, and sword.
The original and refurbished Goddess of Liberty is on display at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin (www.thestoryoftexas.com). Originally cast of galvanized iron and zinc and coated with paint and sand to simulate stone, she stands almost 16 feet tall and weighs about 2,000 pounds.
The Goddess of Liberty replica is corrosion-resistant and made of an aluminum alloy. Like the original, she holds a sword and a gilded star.
For the past two years, thanks to the involvement of my partner Donna Woods, I’ve been documenting something called Body Shift: an Austin, Texas-based mixed-ability dance project that offers classes, workshops, and performances.
Donna is an able-bodied dancer. She practices and performs with able-bodied dancers and dancers with disabilities. But the people with whom Donna interacts in Body Shift are not so neatly categorized. The differences between “able” and “dis” — between tight-turning wheelchairs and bare feet pivoting on a wooden floor or shoes pounding on pavement; between experienced dancer and inexperienced dancer, regardless of the physical body in which one lives — vanish in the improvisational power of motion and connection.
Dance is defined, not redefined, within the fluidity of space. The dance of Body Shift features people of all abilities dancing with each other, with a constant awareness of each other’s movements. But that awareness is not based on a said notion of what movement is or should be. No one holds a patent on movement.
That idea mirrors the missions of Forklift Danceworks and VSA Texas, two Austin-based organizations that began working together in 2003 to create ways for people of all abilities to dance together (read about the genesis of Body Shift at www.bodyshift.org/history.html). In 2010, Forklift Danceworks and VSA Texas co-launched Body Shift, now considered the nation’s only-such ongoing program.
Forklift Danceworks, founded in 2001 by Artistic Director Allison Orr, creates community dance projects in which the members of everyday society — linemen, sanitation truck drivers and trash collectors, urban foresters — star as the primary performers in exquisitely choreographed events held at outdoors venues.
VSA Texas, a nonprofit organization under the guidance of Executive Director Celia Hughes, operates along similar lines. It offers cultural, professional, educational, and public awareness arts services and programs for diverse communities of people with and without disabilities. To uphold its motto “that every person has a voice that deserves to be heard,” VSA Texas partners with volunteers, community organizations, educators, and state and local governments to build inclusive and nurturing communities.
Body Shift is an extension of that philosophy: Every person, every body, is capable of dancing and connecting through motion. Every body, regardless of ability or disability, is beautiful in the motion of dance.
The first Body Shift performance I watched in its entirety was held on October 20, 2013, on the Lady Bird Lake pedestrian bridge in Central Austin. The Bridging the Gap dance piece choreographed by Silva Laukkanen, only the third performance workshop presented by Body Shift, unfolded in the middle of the bridge amid a steady stream of runners, cyclists, people walking dogs, and folks out for a Sunday stroll.
Some people stopped to briefly watch the performance before moving on. Others stopped and stayed, pulling out camera phones to record the event. Some individuals, to my amazement, plowed past the growing crowd with eyes focused straight ahead, seemingly unaware that a unique dance performance was taking place.
Through it all, the Body Shift dancers moved back and forth across the bridge, in wheelchairs, on crutches, and on foot, always leaving wide-open spaces for the public’s passage.
Late in the performance, a man jogging while pushing a stroller abruptly stopped at the performance’s edge, forcing the cyclist behind him to stop as well. “Do you know what this is, what’s going on here?” the man asked loudly, addressing no one in particular, and never removing his ear buds. After getting no response, and then seeing a clear path forward, he resumed jogging.
The incident brought a brief halt, maybe three or four seconds, to a circular train of Body Shift dancers weaving in and out of onlookers at mid-bridge, much to the crowd’s delight. As the man jogged away, performer Melissa Grogan was next in line to cross the bridge. But before doing so, she approached the cyclist who remained stopped, silently motioning his way forward with a gracious flourish of her arm.
Understanding laughter rippled among observers. The jogger pushing the stroller had seen a barrier where there was none.
Since that day, I’ve replayed that scene over and over in my mind. The man’s irritation unwittingly added depth to the performance and seemed to unite the small group of onlookers standing closest to the dancers. As he moved on, I sensed a rising level of compassion and curiosity from those witnessing their first Body Shift performance.
Since that October afternoon on the bridge, I have attended four Body Shift performances and watched snippets of workshops and rehearsals. In the process, my concepts of dance largely centered on individual performance have been altered.
Body Shift’s central philosophy is this: We all move in interesting and compelling ways. As described on Body Shift’s Facebook page, “The dance world can be extremely unfriendly to anyone who does not conform to the image of the young, tall, thin, and able-bodied dancer. This not only excludes anyone with a disability, but also leaves out older adults, people with larger bodies and even experienced dancers who have grown older or whose bodies have changed.” Mixed-ability dance, the description continues, acknowledges “that all of us move in unique and different ways. This uniqueness becomes an asset, not a problem or something that must be hidden or ignored, in a mixed-ability setting. Difference is exciting and ignites creativity.”
Body Shift dancers form intimate connections through shared space. They work in duets and groups of three or more, using each other’s bodies and everyday mobility equipment — from wheelchairs, to walking sticks, or crutches, to an oxygen tank — as creative essentials of dance.
Body Shift dancers lean on each other. They build body statues and sculptures. They take full advantage of a performance space’s architecture, sometimes even climbing on structures, as seen above, to accentuate a pose.
They engage in “flocking,” a way of moving together that resembles birds in flight. I thrilled at seeing flocking in motion during Body Shift’s May 2015 Ninetet performance at the Town Lake YMCA in Austin.
Dance instructor Julie Nathanielsz, who choreographed and performed in Ninetet, shared her fascinating relationship with flocking, and unison exercises, in a blog post she wrote at http://forkliftdanceworks.blogspot.com.
Flocking, Nathanielsz explained, was a concept she had initially rebelled against more than 20 years earlier during a workshop. “Unison felt too much of a representation of togetherness,” she wrote of that period. “I wanted the feeling, yet not the picture.”
But early in the process of preparing for Ninetet, Nathanielsz returned to the group exercises of flocking introduced by guest artist Nina Martin during a 2014 Body Shift workshop.
“Underscored again was the metaphor, and also the singularity of this way of moving,” Nathanielsz wrote. “How much attention, how much relinquishment must we practice so that we are doing the same thing at the same time? So here we were, looking for the Flock. … It was tricky — whose chair had what turning radius? What distance was safe when dealing with bare feet and 600 pounds of power chair?
“We kept working this latest iteration and used it at the start of the dance,” she continued. “What speed could we all share, determined by no one person in particular? How much effort or discomfort were we interested in dealing with? We were excited by what we saw and felt.”
As a photographer, I continue to learn that taking pictures of a Body Shift performance is more than zooming in on individual dancers. The dance of Body Shift moves within the group, from dancer to dancer, in seamless connections.
Tanya Winters, shown in the Body Shift group above, says something beautiful happens when able-bodied dancers and dancers with disabilities start working together. “You can’t filter it,” says Winters, who blogs about Body Shift at http://bschoreographylab.blogspot.com/2015/09. “It’s happening before it reaches to that stupid judgment filter we have.”
The dance of Body Shift “transforms the people doing it and the people watching it,” Winters says. “When I do it, I feel centered. I can’t imagine not having it in my life.”
March 30, 2015: At dusk, while stopped at a traffic light just north of the Texas Capitol near downtown Austin, I peered through the windshield trying to figure out this cloud formation. Was it a jet contrail? Some kind of trippy clouds I’d never seen? For help, I recently turned to meteorologist Aaron Treadway of the Austin/San Antonio-based National Weather Service.
The formation does look like an aviation contrail, Treadway replied in an email. The clouds around the contrail, he explained, are a mix of altocumulus (puffy, mid-altitude clouds that resemble cotton candy) and altostratus (gray or bluish layers of striated or fibrous clouds in the mid layers). “It looks to me like the jet flew at the same altitude as this cloud layer,” Treadway wrote, “leaving behind the contrail and splitting the cloud deck, then over time the contrail spread out producing the smooth line down the middle.”
I’m introducing a weekly feature: Driving With Clouds. Every Sunday, I will post one or more of my photos of clouds, taken in urban and rural settings, from the road, from the side of the road, from wherever I happen to be. Clouds change, from second to second, from season to season. They travel across the sky, sometimes like sets of ocean waves, sometimes like tiny boats.