Thursday, April 28, 2016

Body Shift: Elements

Hello, friends!  This is Olivia, project coordinator for Body Shift, VSA Texas’ and Forklift Danceworks acclaimed mixed-ability dance project.  Since Body Shift began six years ago, it has morphed from a three day intensive once a year to an on-going project that now offers intensives with guest artists that are leaders in the field of mixed-ability dance, performance workshops, a monthly choreography lab and a class we call Elements that takes place twice a month.  Today I want to share more specifics about the Elements class.  What the heck do we mean when we say Elements?  We call it that because we use the DanceAbility method of integrated dance to study the building blocks of what make a dance.  We practice movement improvisation using verbal cueing and physical demonstration to develop body awareness, experience collaboration, and make choices about how, when, and where to move in an effort to design the space.

At the most fundamental, dance is when you move your body in ways that extend beyond your daily movement patterns.  It also includes moments when you feel your body as it moves.  This is called sensation.  So often nowadays because of technology we lose track of sensing our bodies and get stuck in habitual ways of moving with unnecessary amounts of tension.  In improvisation we begin with a warm-up that consists of attending to the sensation of your body breathing and noticing what it feels like to move in different ways.  With guidance from the teacher, you get to choose what feels good to your body and move in ways that help to focus your mind and stretch and enliven your senses.  This is one aspect that makes Elements different than other dance classes – rather than imitating set choreography you get to use interpretation to move in ways that are unique to you.  Not only is this great for relieving stress as well as physical and mental tension it can also be fun and empowering.
A moment of open dancing toward the end of class. Feeling it!
After taking time to solo with our own sensations, we then practice exercises that help us learn how to build relationships with other people while dancing.  Often we will do the same exercise with multiple partners to experience how different the dance becomes each time due to each person’s individual personality.  One basic exercise we do is called “one action, one response.”  One person will make a movement until they decide they are done and choose to hold stillness.  Then the other person makes a movement in response to what they saw the person do before.  This goes on back and forth like a movement conversation until the teacher cues the group to find an end.  By being attentive and really listening with all your senses to what your partner is saying with their body you get inspired to move in new ways you may never have thought of when dancing on your own.  Many exercises we do to practice being in relationship can also provoke empathy.  Empathy is the experience of understanding another person's condition from their perspective.  You place yourself in their shoes and feel what they are feeling.  Research has uncovered the existence of "mirror neurons" in our brains, which react to emotions expressed by others and then reproduce them.  Not only are we dancing together and shifting our perception of what dance looks like, we are getting the chance to connect with people of all abilities on a deeper level.

(Below: A short clip beginning as a one minute sensation solo moves into a two minute duet exploring moving in relationship with your partner.)

The next skill that we layer in is an awareness of design.  We offer exercises that allow beginners to stay engaged at their own level of understanding while at the same time challenging even the most experienced dancer.  For the dancers with more experience at improvising, the teacher offers cues to get them thinking at all times about where they are and what else is happening.  Not only are you asked to be aware of what you and your partner are doing, but where and what kind of timing, levels, spatial relationship, shapes, gestures are happening all around you.  This usually happens naturally by the end of class and everyone experiences a sense of flow along with high levels of concentration and energy.  Participants have said they feel like they have been transported to another place through this energetic connection.  It becomes a spontaneous choreography that the group generates together.
Connecting through movement and having fun!
If you are new to dance or perhaps have always loved to dance but are interested in a new way of moving, the Elements class is for you.  Come shift your perspective!  Every 2nd and 4th Saturday of the month at the Townlake YMCA in Austin from 2:30-4:30 pm.  Visit our website for more details:

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Actual Lives Austin Reunion

“On my honor, as a good cripple…” and so began another raucous evening of theatre by and about people with disabilities. Actual Lives Austin entertained and educated people about life with a disability for over 10 years. On April 17, 2016 many members of the company came together to reminisce the good times and the not so good times, remember those who have passed away, celebrate marriages, children, career successes and exchange phone numbers. Chris Strickling, co-founder of the company with Terry Galloway, was in town from her retirement home in the Yucatan, which was the impetuous to get everyone together. It has been almost 6 years since we worked together as a group, but judging by the laughter and conversation in the room, it might have been only yesterday.
Performing Good Cripple’s Oath in Washington, DC
I bet you are wondering how we found each other in 2000 and how we managed to stay together for all those years. Hard work. All good things require a little hard work and a lot of love. And we really did love what we were doing. Hundreds of stories were developed into theater pieces, dances and songs over the 10 years. The three snippets shared below represent just a brief glimpse into the humanness of all the people involved. Love to Tanya, Mesko, and the person who cannot be named for sharing your lives with us.


This week I am writing, but music, not words. Not creative music but remembered music. Old, remembered melodies. I don’t know where they come from, but one leads to another. Mostly I remember honky tonk songs, played on the radio by my mother. This week it was:

Have I told you lately that I love you? Shall I tell you once again somehow? Have I told you how with all my soul how I adore you? Well darling I’m telling you now.

This heart would break in two if you should leave me. I’m no good without you anyhow. Dear, have I told you lately that I love you? Well darling, I’m telling you now.

After the words are written down, next comes a trip to the piano to pick out the tune. Then, last for me, transferring that melody to the chords of the guitar. These songs sound better to me now, than when we drove down the highway with the windows open, wind in our hair, and mother singing along. Actually, I found mother’s actions to be a bit embarrassing. But I was a pretty snotty kid.
We had so much love we had our own fan club!

"Sun Dance" by Tanya
I have experienced many different kinds of transitions in my life, but this one was nothing like I’ve ever felt before. Imagine yourself in the piney woods of east Texas and it’s hot, really hot, I mean frying pan hot. I’m at Sundance, not the film festival, but the Lakota New year.  So-the-people-will-live Sun Dance. I just wanted something to happen, but the angels never came, the sun just kept shining down. That day I learned that I knew nothing about God. What I discovered was, that didn’t matter.

Mesko performing "Bullies"
"Bullies" by Mesko

I was 14 when I took up weight lifting. I was tired of being beat up. The local bullies, most of them, quit bugging me when I started pulling weights. Finally, even the two biggest, dumbest bullies gave it up – they just quit one day. Period. I didn’t know why.

My friend Glen Randall was not rocket scientist. He just wasn’t, and he knew it. He liked hanging around with me. Why? I’d turn him on to things. Books, movies, and the like. He was more of a physical type than me, MUCH MORE!! Glen was not only good at fighting, he liked to fight. He died of brain cancer in last twenties, before I even knew that he was sick.

Many years later, I found out that Glen had taken each one of the Bad Boys who were bullying me into a back alley and beat the crap out of them – after telling them “Leave Mesko alone!” He had my back, Big Time. I never got to say Thank You as a teen. I’m saying it now.

We love you Actual Lives Austin actors, dancers, friends, fans, and supporters. It was great fun!

The Actual Lives Austin group at the 2016 reunion

Thursday, April 14, 2016

A Very Special Arts Festival (now Art in the Park)

Hey, Lynn here and it’s blog time again. I have been tasked with researching the elusive history of our annual Art in the Park festival, and it goes like this:

...In the beginning…

The City of Austin was selected as the site for the first Very Special Arts Festival, to be held in Texas, September 9, 1978 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Montopolis Recreation Center under joint sponsorship of the Parks and Recreation Department and the National Committee, Arts for the Handicapped. Carol Keeton McClellan, then Mayor of the City of Austin proclaimed this day as “VERY SPECIAL ARTS FESTIVAL DAY.” And so it began the birth of Art in the Park!

A VSA arts of Texas banner hangs on a fence
outside Art in the Park Festival at McBeth Recreation Center.

“Each of us as a unique individual has the need for self-expression…to explore, to experience, to say who we are. The creative arts provide channels for exploration of expressing one’s uniqueness for the handicapped, as well as the non-handicapped.” Michal Anne Lord, Supervisor of Adaptive Programs, Festival Coordinator, City of Austin Parks and Recreation Department

For a few years during the 80’s the City didn't host this event, but Steve Hamman, then Principal of Rosedale School, worked with the VSA State Director to create a VSA Council and to help with some basic funds for the event. The Rosedale VSA Council worked with McBeth Recreation Center to produce the first VSA festival. The Rosedale VSA Council then transitioned the event to Celia Hughes, (current Executive Director of VSA Texas) when she came on as State Director in 1999.

A guitar player performs at Art in the Park.
“My students had an awesome time. I've been taking students to this event for many years, and it's always educational and fun for the students. I hope you're able to continue providing this valuable service to our deserving Life Skills students here in Austin for many years to come.” Garcia M.S. Life Skills Program

In 1999, Art in the Park had a little less than 400 attendees from 25 schools and about 15 booths, mostly provided by VSA Texas. We now have over 80 schools from across Central Texas, over 1000 attendees, and 35 booths. Many of the same schools have returned throughout the years and consider this their most exciting event. We have had loyal support from many booth providers and performers such as Umlauf Sculpture Gardens, Mexic-Arte, Wings, Bruce Davis Band, Zippy the Clown, and others.

“We had such a great time. It was a wonderful event. I heard nothing but positive things from teachers and students. Thank you!” AISD GO Project, St. David's Episcopal Church
A student holds a maraca at Art in the Park.
In 2007, as a new staffer with VSA arts of Texas (as it was then called), I participated in my first Art in the Park at McBeth Recreation Center. I didn’t know what to expect, and it sleeted, rained and was cold. We hustled around and moved most of the activities inside, and then the rain stopped, kids played, performers performed, and the indoors magically housed what seemed to be a million people. It was a great day!

A group of students in tie-dye shirts pose for a photo
during Art in the Park at the MACC.
“The event was perfect! Getting in and out of the event went smoothly. We loved the art activities. Many of the activities we plan to recreate for our program. Thank you for your time and dedication in organizing this event. Our students' lives are enriched because of your work.” 18+ Program, Liberty Hill High School

So as the participation grew, in 2010, the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center (MACC) became our new location for this event, providing more parking, more art activities, and more room for those “million+” participants.

Tomorrow will be another great Festival day!

A student wears a green balloon alien
on his head.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

The Lion and the Pirate: A Community

In February of 2014, I was terrified of playing my songs in front of people. Sure, I would daydream about it and spend hours playing chords, writing lyrics, watching performances of my heroes, but I had made no efforts to take the tunes out of my living room. Fortunately, something came along that shook up my little world of comfort. It was the Lion and Pirate open mic at Malvern Books, conveniently located just two blocks away from the living room where my songs had been confined for the last several years.
Myself in the latest incarnation of Dude Choir
playing at the second anniversary of the open mic.
(All photos are courtesy of Malvern Books)
This open mic was co-hosted by VSA Texas and the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities’ Pen 2 Paper Writing Contest, and what set it apart from the dozens of other Austin open mics was that it was completely accessible. The door was open. The crowd was friendly. The stage was spacious and level with the audience. It was here, in February of 2014, that I performed my songs live for the first time in more than four years and that Dude Choir, the collective of myself and a rotating cast of dudes (i.e., my musical attendants who have also become great friends), made its debut appearance.
The Old Hats perform at Malvern Books. When asked about the open mic,
the Hats' John Meinkowsky said, "We love everything about
the Lion and the Pirate. Great location, great hosts, great audience.
And Malvern Books puts a super high quality video on YouTube."
Since then I have played the Lion and Pirate at least a dozen times with different dudes and different songs. When I think about my most recent musical accomplishments – playing a set at the Our Lives Conference in El Paso or recording and releasing my own CD I realize they would not have been possible without the support I have received from this humble open mic. To me, it's not just an open mic. It's a highlight of each month. It's motivation to keep creating.
Bear reads a poem to a crowd at Malvern Books. Bear said of the open mic,
"The energy there is very open. I feel inspired by the diversity
of the performers there. Everyone pushes everyone up."
Laura Perna of the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities, our partner in making the Lion and Pirate a reality, describes how much the open mic has grown and become an important part of many of our lives:

"When I arrive at Malvern, people that I've never met are already there, waiting for the show to start; performers are setting up; the space is filling with conversations and laughter. And once we get going, the show runs way past our allotted hour. J-Bo, a member of The Old Hats (by now a staple at the Lion and Pirate), summarized this transition best: 'this is turning into a community.' It's more than the stories that people come to tell, sing, recite, or even express without words; it's that we're all there, listening to each other together."

So come on down and join our community! Email to get on our email list or attend our next open mic at Malvern Books, 613 West 29th Street in Austin.