Dancing: Offering Our All

By   /  July 7, 2010  /  3 Comments

Choreographing for people of various abilities—and disabilities—has shown me how many ways there are to glorify God with our bodies.

By Cynthia Newland

 

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship.” (Romans 12:1)

As a Christian who teaches mainly in the field of dance, I am called to give flesh to this verse in the studio, classroom, concert hall, sanctuary, and other venues appropriate for dance. Our “bodies” include our mind, will, emotions, and souls. They vary in shape, size, color, and ability. With this in consideration, I am stimulated and encouraged to provide opportunities for people with various “bodies” and abilities to make a living offering.

For the past ten years, it has been my honor to create inclusive dance works involving those with and without disabilities. Participants have included dance professionals, people with genetic disorders, university dance students, adults who have experienced an accident affecting their limbs, children, and senior citizens. No matter their circumstance or personal faith journey, each person with whom I have worked has had the chance to bring to the stage a unique contribution of themselves.

 

“Araya’s Wings”

Araya Isaacson was born with Osteo Genesis Imperfeta (brittle bones), having between twelve and seventeen broken bones at birth. Shortly after corrective surgery when she was four years old, Araya sat in a church worship service watching a dancer interpret the sacred music. Feeling the weight of her casts, she asked, “Mommy, when will I be able to dance like that?” Her mother replied, “When you get to heaven you will dance with the angels.” I created “Araya’s Wings,” a duet for Araya and myself, to allow her to dance here on earth as well as feel as if she were soaring in the heavenly realm.

Ten years ago when I was choreographing this dance, Araya was unable to walk alone without the aid of a walker. Since her birth, she has had numerous surgeries implanting steel rods in her legs and around her spine to maintain use of her body. People with this disease frequently die at an early age due to collapse of the rib cage. Araya’s story displays a fight to survive and to live life to the fullest.

“Araya’s Wings” begins with me making large, sweeping, soaring wing gestures with my arms. Then, in contrast, the lights rise on Araya lying on the floor in a large clear plastic bag that appears to encase her in a womb or cocoon. She moves and strikes with percussive gestures, as if she is struggling to be born, and then slowly makes her way out of the plastic casing.

The dance continues as the two of us move together. Sometimes I follow her movements, which are restricted by the steel rods embedded within. I trail close behind as she crawls on the floor with legs twisted and crossed (her natural mode of locomotion). And then she mimics my movements and gestures with eye contact, confirming our partnership. With this interchange we show that we are the same— friends moving in space together, relating to one another. With mutual respect, delight, and even humor, we attempt to perform each other’s natural motions. Then I stand to gather her walker, and she rises to sit on the walker, and with freedom we move around the stage together. Araya is freed to use her arms and upper body to soar and dance in the space.

The dance concludes as I seize the large plastic bag that once contained Araya, fasten it behind the walker, and spread the upper corners high like wings. The lights lower as I stand behind Araya gracefully waving the angelic wings, while Araya gazes heavenward as she soars here on earth.

We performed this dance in numerous settings, both sacred and secular, before audience of all ages. Araya’s own sense of purpose was fueled by her artistic expression and growth as well as the physical strength and coordination she developed. She inspired hundreds of people as they watched her dance, debunking preconceived notions about people with disabilities and their limitations. Audiences did not see her disability; instead, they saw courage, ability, and a glimpse of their own limitations.

One of my favorite stories pertaining to this dance occurred when we performed “Araya’s Wings” at an elementary school when Araya was twelve years old. A boy in fifth or sixth grade approached Araya at the end of our concert. He looked her straight in the eyes and said, “You are the most beautiful dancer that I have ever seen in my life.” That boy understood the power of the Creator working through art. As you can imagine, Araya’s life has been an inspiration to many, and she has experienced great joy conveying her love for life through dance.

Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him; for God’s temple is sacred, and you are that temple.” (1 Corinthians 3:16-17)

 

“A Part of Me”

An expectant mother sits on a chair in a pool of white light in the middle of the stage. She is reading a sterile document that states:

We have received results from the lab concerning your recent fetal testing. As anticipated, our records show that the fetus you carry does in fact have genetic abnormalities. Our medical practice provides a professional counseling department to offer assistance in this type of situation. It is my suggestion that you make an appointment to discuss your options.

The devastated mother crumples the paper and contorts her body in anguish, wrenching in disbelief and grief, mourning the unknown that grows within. She clutches the page to her womb and slowly lowers it between her open legs, releasing clutched hands as if to discard the unwanted report—and the unwanted fetus. Unwilling to accept the burden that she carries, she fills the stage with motions of desperation and upward gestures pleading with God.

Child in “A Part of Me” holds the document revealing facts about her own disorder.

Two other women pass across the stage clutching the same document. The first contorts her body, gripping the paper as if to strangle the news, tossing it on floor, and leaving it behind as she makes her decision to discard the fetus. The second woman holds the same report, yet her body language shows that she accepts the news with anticipation, symbolically rocking the letter as if it were a caressed child.

Then the mother sitting center stage carefully reconsiders her letter and the child in her womb, re-evaluating her choices. Other mothers enter the stage pushing their small children gracefully around in wheelchairs, laughing, playing peek-a-boo, and dancing. Each parent pauses to make sincere prayers gestures to God, giving offerings of thanks for their gift of life. The expectant mother watches with curiosity, attempting to accept her own child and the unknown future.

The scene shifts four years ahead in time. A child with Down Syndrome runs onto the stage towards her mother, and the two unite with evident joy. Her uninhibited dance and giggles fill the theater. The mother engages her daughter with sincerity, devotion, and love as they twirl and spin. In an unexpected moment, the child reaches for the crumpled paper, climbs onto the chair, and opens the document as if to read it.

The responses to “A Part of Me” from both spectators and participants showed me again how the power of dance can reach deep into the soul. Audience members appreciated the “pro-life” message and the deepened awareness of how precious life is, no matter what the condition of life. As the female dancers portraying the mothers spent numerous hours in rehearsals with children born with genetic abnormalities, their eyes and hearts were opened to the reality of life with disability. One by one, throughout the rehearsal process and performances, each biological mother came to me and said that they saw their stories danced out on stage and experienced something they had never dreamed possible. “A Part of Me” gave their daughters an opportunity to dance on stage like other “normal” children. God had used this dance to bring healing to the mothers and a profound sense of how these children, like Araya, were  “fearfully and wonderfully made.”

 

“Every Step of the Way”

On August 30, 2008, Nicole Marquez was found unconscious in the alley behind her Harlem apartment building in New York City. The aspiring Broadway dancer from Jackson, Mississippi, had fallen six stories from the roof. Since the accident, Nicole knows that God has been with her every step of the way.

I met Nicole a few years prior to her accident when she wanted to connect with the dance scene at Belhaven University. Nicole had numerous professional dance experiences and many more dreams about her future in the field of dance. After the accident, she was unconscious for days and awakened unable to move. Though she gradually regained limited use of her arms, she was told that she would never walk again and most certainly never dance.

After many months of rehabilitation, Nicole was released from the hospital on a Friday. The following Monday, we met together on a dance floor. We sat in chairs (mine with four legs and hers with wheels) and talked about her experience and the current reality of her limited abilities. Then we did what modern dancers do; I put on music and we got down on the floor. We began to explore her range of motion and to celebrate the progress of her movements. We discussed what was yet to come and how to get there.

From the onset of hearing about Nicole’s accident and my visits to the hospital, I felt her story needed to be theatrically staged. She agreed and gave me permission to create a dance that captured the essence of her traumatic but hopeful experience. Dancers represented significant individuals present throughout her journey: family members, medical professionals, and old and new friends offering gestures of hope, prayer, and healing. The progression of Nicole’s health, physical development, and spiritual encounters were key to the creation of “Every Step of the Way.”

Medical assistants show Nicole how to lift her arms in “Every Step of the Way.” Photo by Kris Dietrich.

The dance begins with Nicole’s broken body on the stage in a pool of low light. One by one, large white winged angelic beings soar across the stage to her aid and sweep around her to place a shield of protection. They begin to inhale and exhale in unison, as if to breathe life back into the fallen, lifeless body. The creatures gracefully remove their wings, revealing underneath the clinical white uniforms. Transformed into medical professionals, the dancers lift Nicole to a waiting wheelchair where, with choreographed gestures, they care for her medical needs—taking her pulse, checking her IV, and inspecting bandages. The dance continues artfully revealing her physical progression as she slowly and methodically moves to a walker and then stands to walk at the end of the dance, with a companion’s arm to assist and guide her.

Hundreds of people attended the event “Tunes, Tutus and Turning Wheels” where “Every Step of the Way” was first performed. Others have watched the dance online and witnessed the strong will and determination of a dancer who struggled, against all odds, to walk on her own.

“Tunes, Tutus and Turning Wheels”

“Tunes, Tutus and Turning Wheels” is a recurring event at Belhaven University including tunes played live by local musicians, tutus and other wonderful dance costumes and dance forms, and turning wheels of chairs spun around the floor. In the past, the relationships between the dancers and artists on and off stage have been rich and enlightening. Seeing dancers with disabilities perform with deliberate effort and passion reminds us that we are all really the same in so many ways. Emotional responses range from outbursts of laughter to sympathetic tears as both audience and participants get caught up in a creative environment where they are engaged and entertained and stirred by people—with or without disabilities.

“Dueling Dudes” performed during “Tunes, Tutus and Turning Wheels.”

As a choreographer, it brings me great joy to create dances that include people with varied abilities. There is an unlimited variety of ways to join our minds, efforts, and imaginations as we use equipment and bodies to dance together.

God uses the arts in so many profound ways to make an eternal impact on people’s lives. Watching an authentic dancer present himself or herself as a “living sacrifice” pleasing to God can move us to offer ourselves to God and find healing and transformation. Though our bodies may be bound by old traditions or by physical constraints, we can be set free when we experience art-filled movement and dance.

Cynthia Newland, MFA, is Chair of Dance at Belhaven University

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