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.
A male Wood Duck out of water is as beautiful as a Wood Duck in water, as this handsome and gregarious fellow shows at Landa Park in New Braunfels, Texas. From left below, the Wood Duck gives his mate a peck, swims side by side with her in Landa Lake, and hangs out with a Lesser Scaup for a little while.
Every November, I start watching for the arrival of Double-crested Cormorants to Austin’s Lady Bird Lake. On the occasional stroll around the lake’s hike and bike trail, I thrill at seeing the cormorants dry their wings while perched high in bald cypress trees at the water’s edge. From a variety of vantage points along the trail, I love watching these big, athletic birds ride the small swells in the middle of the lake and then dramatically plunge beneath the surface.
When driving across any one of the lake’s bridges at dusk, I crane my neck, watching for the trademark, almost V-shaped formations of cormorants flying home for the night to their tall-tree roosts. The cormorants’ wings beat impossibly fast, as if the birds are competing in a race that can never be won.
For me, the cormorants signal a solemn change of season; a time of reflection and pause. My heart plunges to a familiar melancholy depth when the first cormorants arrive. Strong swimmers, they survive by diving for fish. Otherworldly in appearance, the cormorants lend a prehistoric feel to Lady Bird Lake during their winter stay.
I recently tried photographing cormorants from the hike and bike trail. I was not successful. I realized I had to get closer: I had to get on the water, with the birds. So this past Friday, on January 15, I rented a kayak from the Texas Rowing Center on Lady Bird Lake, determined to sidle up beside cormorants and other birds and wildlife on the water.
Considering this was only my second time in a kayak (my timid maiden voyage came on a summer day several years ago at the Texas Rowing Center), I was nervous for me, and for anyone else on the water.
Grappling with my camera gear, worried about a bum knee, and horrified at the very real possibility of unceremoniously dunking myself in the lake, I slid on my butt from the wooden dock into my one-person kayak. To the stoically quiet employee who assisted me: Thank you for not laughing. At least not in front of me. Fortunately, save for a mother and daughter who pushed off in a double kayak from the Texas Rowing Center dock just moments after my departure, the late-morning lake was largely void of human activity.
More than two hours later, riding the calm lake alongside cormorants, American Coots, and a wide variety of ducks including scaups and Buffleheads, I had forgotten to be afraid.
I wasn’t graceful, but the lightweight kayak was. The slender boat allowed me access into many a tight spot.
Time and again, as I skirted the shoreline, edging up next to egrets and turtles, the latter strung out on small limbs like beads on a necklace, the forgiving kayak got me out of jams. I banged the boat’s nose into low-hanging branches. I scraped tree roots. I hung up on the lake’s gravelly bottom in shallow water. But with the kayak’s double-bladed paddle I found easy to use, I learned to push myself back into deep water.
I learned, sort of, how to stop the kayak, or at least slow my progress long enough to get better views of wildlife lingering at the water’s edge as I drifted past.
I learned that reclusive Wood Ducks don’t take kindly to clumsy kayakers coming up on them, especially at much too fast a pace.
I learned, from two fishermen on a small boat, below, that the bass were biting.
I observed, at the corner of Lou Neff Point, that cormorants sunning themselves on low-slung limbs will let you take lots and lots of pictures as long as you don’t come too close — say three feet while cradling the kayak paddle in your lap, grasping a branch knob with your left hand, and somehow holding and focusing the camera with your right. For sure, that scenario is enough to make any cormorant, such as the one that tolerated me for a good 10 minutes, flee the branch for the safety of the water.
I can’t wait to go kayaking again on Lady Bird Lake. I’m eager to learn how to step into the kayak, with the elegant confidence of an egret, instead of sliding in on my behind. I can’t wait to gently rock on the water in the middle of the lake, paddle resting on my lap, as I watch the wild, wild life fly, and swim, all around me.
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.”