Monday, October 25, 2010

Body Shift

The legacy of Isadora Duncan’s dance is broad as well as deep—she not only created a movement technique that organizes the body according to specific movement patterns, but she also widened the landscape of who can call themselves a dancer.  Duncan challenged the notion that dancers must learn codified steps and instead emphasized approaching dance from a perspective of inquiry and creativity. In justifying her desire to establish a school, Duncan stated, “the dance is the most natural and beautiful aid to the development of the growing child in constant movement” (Duncan, The Art of the Dance). Although Duncan took only children as her students, she identified individual human expression through gesture as source material for dance movement.  Duncan certainly would have been thrilled to see the wide range of creative exploration evident in this weekend’s Body Shift workshop, organized by Forklift Danceworks and VSA Texas.

Eiffel Tower
Saturday morning I attended a session facilitated by Michele Owens, a longtime dance educator, a modern dance guru for kids, and director of Wings, a dance company featuring differently-able bodies. I first met Michele a few years ago when she attended a Duncan dance workshop I taught at Dance Discovery in Austin. About a year later, I had the opportunity to assist her when she led a workshop for incarcerated women in Lockhart, Texas, through an organization called Truth Be Told. Saturday morning was the first time I experienced Michele’s work with mixed ability dancers, and she created a space for exploration that beautifully and seamlessly integrated a diverse group of bodies and enabled wheelchairs to become jungle gyms and sighted and visually-impaired dancers to sculpt one another in space.

Sculpting in Pairs
The creativity and risk-taking was stunning, as dancers allowed themselves to learn from and make adjustments for each others' differences in perception.  I had the opportunity to work with an intuitive and beautiful dancer named Nicole. Michele picked Nicole to demonstrate a sculpting exercise, and in watching her work, I did not initially realize that she was blind (also evidence of the amazing assumptions we make, even in mixed-ability settings!).  In sculpting me, Nicole made an immediate shift to the shape of my torso, rather than starting with arms and legs (as many people start this exercise from the extremities). Working from the torso first makes more sense, from a touch perspective, as one would certainly begin molding a form from the center of the form if working with clay.  Partnering with Nicole in this simple and familiar activity opened up a surprising new realm of creative possibility!  (And I’m sure Duncan would have appreciated the reminder to focus on moving first from the torso, the solar plexus, as center).

No matter how “able” our bodies are, there are limits to our ability to perceive. That is what makes us human. What a fantastic opportunity Body Shift offered for dancers to create in collaboration with other dancers who perceive and who inhabit space in different ways. The notion “dancer” so often implies one who has garnered a virtuosic mastery of the body, and this definition assumes a kind of perfection of the body and a symmetry or ambidextrous capability. It assumes a knowledge of the body that is somehow complete. But how much more interesting it is to not know? To be surprised by someone else’s discovery! To perceive a limit, not as an obstacle, but as an opportunity to discover a new pathway, a way around or through or under? This process of exploration and experimentation is a foundation of modern dance, and an important legacy of Duncan. And I thank the Body Shift organizers for facilitating such an exciting space of discovery.

(And, on a personal note, I also honor my Dad in this post—he was the first wheelchair user I ever danced with, and his vocal observations from a different perspective had a profound effect on many lives).