Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Teaching Artist Nilea Parvin Talks About Her First Assignment with VSA Texas

Last week, I had the pleasure of sitting down with one of our longest running teaching artists at VSA Texas. Nilea Parvin, an Arkansas native, has been teaching with VSA Texas for over 10 years now. She came to us after a car accident left her with a traumatic brain injury and the uncertainty of whether or not she would ever teach again. After learning about us, she found her way back in to the classroom and the rest is history.

One of the first things you notice about Nilea is her ability to tell a story. Not only do you feel like you were there, but you feel like you were part of its magic. She brings out the very core of whoever she talks to and had me crying less than 5 minutes into our interview. To hear her tell the story of VSA Texas is to truly capture what it is we do here. We make people feel included, worthy and able. We give them guidance to become who they are.

After two days of wading through more than 30 minutes of video that I tried to cut down to less than 1 minute, I kept coming back to this particular chunk of our time together. When I got here this morning, I knew I had to scrap all my work and share this story. It is real and raw and beautiful. Please forgive the length, but there are some stories that cannot be told in less than a minute.

When people ask me why I do what I do, I'd like to show them this video and remind them that THIS is why I come in every day. If I can somehow touch one single life the way Nilea touched this young woman's, then that's a life well-lived.

Friday, February 24, 2017

It’s My Story: February 2017

Hello, my name is Adrianna Matthews. I am a VSA Texas Work Study Student/Project Assistant. I was first introduced to VSA Texas last April through discussing my interest in learning more about disability and art with the Executive Director of the organization, Ms. Celia Hughes. That very same day, I signed up for an Opening Minds, Opening Doors (OMOD) six-week workshop with Chris Strickling. To make a long story short, I fell in love with this organization and its dedication and commitment to promote both art and disability in the most positive ways ever. I immediately knew that this was a place where I wanted to work. The stories created in the 2016 OMOD workshop were so inspiring that I could not leave without at least trying to get my foot one step closer to being part of VSA Texas.
Photo from the second week of our It's My Story workshop shows students working on digital stories.
Now here we are in February 2017 and I just finished teaching the It’s My Story: Introduction to Digital Storytelling three-week workshop. It’s a privilege for me to go from student to teacher and have my first real experience doing something that promotes disability rights and at the same time connects to art and storytelling, the two things I love most in this world. The students I worked with, along with the volunteers and Artworks Director April Sullivan, made this journey magical for me. They brought so much life and energy to our digital storytelling community. I am so grateful for the opportunity to engage with each and every one of them.
Another photo from the second week shows the class gathered in a circle and sharing responses to the writing prompts in preparation for making digital stories using the Slidestory application.
The first week I taught the students the basics of creating a digital story as well as the steps necessary to make the story compelling and complete. After going over the digital storytelling process, the students were each assigned a partner to work with in completing a selection of nine interview questions. This gave the students an opportunity to learn about each other as well as practice how they can tell someone else’s story through an interview process.
Pearl working on her GoAnimate video in the third week of the It's My Story workshop
Once the students finished their interviews, they took a few moments to go around a circle and share what they had learned about each other. The next goal was to have each of the students choose one of the questions they had answered about themselves and turn it into a full story. Once the students finished writing their stories, they learned their first digital story application called Voki, which is an educational technology with a free collection of customized speaking avatars. The goal in using this application was for the students to take their stories and create their own personal avatars to tell these stories. During the next two weeks, the students used similar creative writing prompts and produced more digital stories using other applications, including Slidestory and GoAnimate. Take a look at two sample digital stories made using Voki and GoAnimate below.

Click here to see Marielle's Voki.

Watch Sydney's "Deciding" story made with GoAnimate below:

If you want to create your own digital stories, then I strongly encourage you to register for one of our next It's My Story digital storytelling workshops! You can find out more information about the It's My Story program here. Don’t miss your chance to create some dynamic digital stories!

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Love is in the Air!

I find myself watching young lovers, but I really like to witness the reciprocated love that has weathered the test of time. I love how couples take care of each other. I wonder at the secrets they hold close.

This is the one day of the year when we celebrate all the love that surrounds us; that keeps us going when we are sad and makes us feel like we can reach for the stars… and put one into our pocket.

But I really can’t speak to love – unless it is the unconditional love of a pet – and I even question the “unconditional” part once in awhile. So, instead, here are two love stories from good friends of VSA Texas:
A tractor-trailer jack-knives on a snowy freeway, as seen from a rearview mirror.
The first one is from David Dauber, former cast member and director of Actual Lives Austin:

As I looked in my rearview mirror and saw the jack-knifing eighteen wheeler crashing across all three lanes of the highway like a flipper in a pinball machine, I wondered if love was truly worth this trip. Terri and I had been together for ten months, and I was headed from Fort Worth to Austin for another weekend of euphoric love. Love that could not be denied or even put on hold. This weekend was our first Valentine’s Day together, and not even an ice-covered, snow blanketed road was going to keep me from making the trip to Austin for the romantic dinner I reserved months ago at Cool River with my love.

We had both discussed our lonely Valentine’s Days of previous years. It had only been a year ago that I sat safely at home with a combo burrito from Taco Bell, Lord of the Rings 3 on my TV, and a longing for more in my life. This year I was on an adventure of my own, and nothing was going to stop me from seeing “my precious,” Terri.
David and Terri, pose before a snowy forest backdrop with their son, Denver.
As we celebrate our fourteenth Valentine’s Day, our love for one another continues to grow. While a steak dinner at a cozy table for two has transformed to ordering a heart-shaped pizza at home and listening to our son scream demands for more Kindle time just to watch another Minecraft YouTube video, I wouldn’t change any of it. I’m no longer alone. We are loved by my Kansas friends that stop by to visit us as they drive through Texas on their family vacations. We are loved by our family church friends that we made together years ago. Terri’s friends she first made in Actual Lives love us by showing, that even in death, we are never alone and that circles are multipliable.

Once we have true love, our circles connect. Once those circles are connected, they form the symbol of infinity. The infinite love that Terri and I share make every bit of it worth the trip. Happy Valentine’s Day, Terri. I love you.

And here is David Chapple, OMOD speaker, on the strength of true love:

In 1997 I met my future wife Kate at the Pittsburgh Employment Conference (PEC) for augmentative communicators. I was from Ohio and she was from Texas. Our eyes met and we just knew, it was love at first sight. But unfortunately Kate was in a relationship, so I had to hold back my feelings. We spent our time together throughout the conference and even took a romantic stroll to see the fireworks over the city. We almost kissed that night, but our feelings had to remain unrevealed for the time being.
Throughout the years, Kate and I kept in contact and we saw each other again at the same conference now and then. However, one day in 2011, Kate wrote to me on Facebook and said she had left her husband, and gave me her phone number. I could not believe it and said to myself, “What the hell?” I texted her right away and we finally revealed our feelings for each other that were denied all those years ago.

So we decided to have a date at the conference in Pittsburgh. We had a wonderful dinner at Joe’s Crab Shack. After dinner we went off alone and we finally got that long awaited kiss. Fireworks went off, the symphony started to play, and lightning struck, when we kissed. I knew right then I wanted to be with Kate, and she felt the same way!!! Over the next few months our relationship grew, we could not bear being apart. After some deep conversations with my family, friends and Kate; I decided to move to Austin. Every August 4th we go to Joe’s Crab Shack to celebrate our anniversary. But the 4th of August 2015 was very special because Kate and I got married at Joe’s Crab Shack.
Dave and Kate pose for a photo.
These two Davids have fought the odds that society has placed against them finding true love and have proven that their pockets are full of stars.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Is Art Really a Waste of Money?

Way back in 1965, the United States Congress decided that there should be a federal, independent agency whose “funding and support gives Americans the opportunity to participate in the arts, exercise their imaginations, and develop their creative capacities.” This is how the National Endowment for the Arts came to be. There is a reason VSA Texas and the National Endowment for the Arts work so well together; through our missions, we strive to make art an important part of life that reaches across all lines. I’ve been hearing a lot of talk about defunding one of the only federal agencies I like, and it’s just not something I can understand. Is art really a waste of money?

For the last ten years, the NEA has funded some of our most groundbreaking work. Our first grant from them allowed us to put together a strategic plan that paved the way for us to bring Accessible Arts, an art therapy program, into schools. This was the first validation of the quality of work we were doing.
Photo of cast and crew from “Daze of Our Lives,” onstage after a 2008 performance at the LBJ Performing Arts Center
This led to another year that allowed us to hire a choreographer and director for our Actual Lives Company. Up to that point, we were mostly doing stretching and movement on stage. Now, we were able to bring in a dance element, and from this, we created our program Body Shift.

“I continue to be amazed at the transformative impact Celia Hughes and VSA Texas have had on the central Texas dance community. What started as a few annual classes has grown into a dance community comprised of people of all abilities, and this supportive Body Shift community could not have existed without the efforts of Celia and her team. I’m humbled by their endless work towards increasing access to the arts for all people, and I’m proud to partner with them for another season of Body Shift.” - Allison Orr, Artistic Director, Forklift Danceworks

The next year, with the success of the previous two grants, we were able to bring in Alito Alessi, founder of Danceability International, to do a 10-day teacher orientation and workshop to introduce his method to our Body Shift Mixed Ability Dance Community. From that, we were then able to raise our own funds to bring him back for a month to train twenty-eight teachers from all over the United States and Mexico. We are very proud to be the first city in the US to host this full-on Danceability Teacher Certification training program in ten years!
Three women in blue t-shirts engage in dance with a woman in a pink shirt in a wheelchair and a man in a red shirt, who is also in a wheelchair.
This year, we are bringing in StopGap Dance Company, a premier mixed ability dance company out of the United Kingdom. They will be devising a new site-specific performance with dancers from the Body Shift community to be seen in Austin in early August 2017.
I’m telling you all of this because through four small grants, the NEA has provided the VSA Texas family with some of the most valuable programs we run and they have directly been responsible for the improvement of well over 5,000 lives. VSA Texas is proof that you don’t have to have a lot of money to make a HUGE impact, not to mention a pretty solid return on investment, considering how much we were able to do with around $10,000 per grant.

We need to change the rhetoric that the arts are a dispensable commodity, rather than a crucial part of the very fabric our humanity is built upon. If you don’t want to see the arts go away in your lifetime, then say something about it. Make your voice heard. Support a local arts organization, buy from a local artist, employ artists and pay them what they’re worth. We can’t control national funding, but we can support people in our own backyards. It’s time to get creative.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Body Shift: Year in Review and February Elements Teacher Profiles

Hello, friends! Olivia O'Hare, Body Shift Project Coordinator, speaking to you from the VSA Texas offices. 2016 was an amazing year for the development and expansion of Body Shift's programming. We began offering the Elements class twice a month, got the choreography lab under way, and had a variety of performances around town as well as guest artist Heidi Latsky's movement installation, On Display, in honor of the International Day of People with Disabilities. There is no sign of things slowing down in 2017! In additon to our on-going classes we are happy to share that Nina Martin will return to work with us in March and April. We will also be hosting StopGap Dance Company from England for a two week residency in the end of July! For more information and updates about the calendar of events, please check out our new and improved Body Shift website here.

One of the things we hope for in the new year is that you will consider coming to dance with us in our all level, all abilities dance improvisation class Elements in which we practice the DanceAbility method (click here for more information about our Elements class). Classes have grown since this time last year but we still have plenty of room for more of you all to join us. No dance experience, no problem. Professional dancer? I encourage you to join us as well. The cool thing about the DanceAbility method is that the more diverse the group, the more effective and enriching the experience is for everyone involved. We hope for a broad spectrum of abilities and backgrounds to come together to dance and have fun. Instead of imitating prescribed movements, improvisation offers the opportunity to discover the full potential of your body, as you are.

Since Body Shift hosted the month long, 150 hour DanceAbility teacher certification course back in 2015, we now have an awesome team of instructors in rotation to teach the Elements class. Included below is a little more info about the folks who will be co-teaching on February 11th and 25th – save those dates 'cause Errin and Dany always teach an awesome class!

Errin, Andy (Townlake YMCA employee) and Dany together after the Body Shift informance at the YMCA Abilities Expo

Teacher Profile – Errin Delperdang

Errin always knew she wanted to dance and, at the age of 5, she finally convinced her parents to sign her up for classes. She studied and performed ballet, tap and jazz throughout her childhood and teenage years and decided to pursue dance at the collegiate level after high school. In 2003 Errin graduated from UT with a BFA in dance. After school she moved to New York and worked with many inspiring dancers, choreographers, musicians and artists. Errin returned to Austin in 2009 and began making work. Her choreography has been produced by Fusebox Festival, Ready Set Go!, Co-lab, Dance Umbrella and others. In addition to her artistic endeavors, Errin began taking classes taught by DanceAbility trained teachers Olivia O’Hare and Silva Laukkanen. She became interested in the improvisational techniques and the unique movement generated in these classes so when the opportunity to become certified in the DanceAbility method arose, she signed up and became a teacher herself.

Learning the DanceAbility method and dancing with Body Shift consistently opens up new possibilities for movement that Errin didn’t know existed. The experience of dancing with a diverse group of movers is empowering and educational. Errin is constantly amazed by the ability of dance to connect people with one another in a unique and meaningful way. Errin also teaches Pilates and is fascinated by human movement potential in many applications. Body Shift is different in that there is no prescribed or codified movement, as there is with Pilates and most other forms of dance. There are no steps to learn or a “correct” form. All movement is appreciated and included, allowing for creativity to be the guiding principle.

The next endeavor for Errin is to become a physical therapist. In June she starts the physical therapy doctoral program at Texas State University. Her goal is to bring the benefits of improvisational movement to a physical therapy practice in the hopes of helping people achieve their full movement potential. When she isn’t dancing, teaching or studying, Errin loves to see live performance, take her dog on greenbelt hikes and go camping when she can get away.

Tanya Winters, Errin and Dany in rehearsal for last summer's Body Shift performance directed by Olivia O'Hare, "Your Way of Thinking"

Teacher Profile – Dany Casey

Dany Casey loves to dance. She earned her B.A. in Dance from the New School University (NYC) and bounced around the country before landing here in Austin. After starting a job at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (TSBVI), she became wildly interested in accessibility and the unique perspectives and experiences gained by a diverse and inclusive population. By chance, a few months after starting that job, a DanceAbility teacher training came to Austin. It was the perfect marriage of movement, inclusion, collaboration, creativity, and teaching. Dany loves to persistently explore new possibilities with others, which is a cornerstone in the DanceAbility method. She has found that through working in groups where there is sensory diversity, one can open doors of perception that would otherwise be invisible.

In addition to working at TSBVI and working with Body Shift, Dany is also pursuing her Sign Language Interpreter Certification through Austin Community College (ACC). It is another lens through which to approach accessibility, and she has immensely enjoyed interacting in the Deaf Community (which is totally CHAMP here in Austin!). She has a particular interest in working with the Deaf-Blind community.

When she is not being delighted by her students or signing in an interpreting class, you might find her tending to her army of plants or throwing a stick for her pup. She looks forward to dancing with you!

Dany, Errin and Susie Angel performing in last summer's Body Shift performance directed by Olivia O'Hare, "Your Way of Thinking"

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. Cost is on a sliding scale of $5-$20 and no membership to the Y is required.