One recent evening on Austin’s Sixth Street, this young homeless man and I locked eyes. He wordlessly allowed the taking of his photograph and then commented on my T-shirt: forest green, with a design of generic leaves that could be from any tree. At least that’s what I thought it represented. Your shirt has pot leaves, he said, catching me off guard. I looked down at my shirt. Did it? I laughed. Sure had never seen it that way. Things aren’t always what they seem, I guess. This is what I love about Sixth Street. Conversations you don’t see coming.
I met this man on a recent afternoon walk around downtown Austin. He was sitting on a bench on the north side of Fourth Street, across the street from a Capital MetroRail station. I asked him where the train went, and he said, get on and find out. He smiled. He said he couldn’t afford to ride it. We chatted for a while. He said he used to paint with Art From the Streets, a free and open studio in Austin that serves artists in the homeless community. I asked why he quit. He shrugged. I encouraged him to start painting again. We chatted some more. And then I went on my way, turning to wave at this friendly stranger.
I shot this photo of David, a young homeless man living on the downtown streets of Austin, Texas, near dusk on a recent Friday evening. I asked David if I could take his picture, but I didn’t ask him to pose. He instinctively adopted this somber, pensive stance against the backdrop of a hotel development on the northeast corner of Seventh Street and Congress Avenue.
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.”