Body Shift

A different kind of dance mix

<i>Sextet </i>

"I don't know what the right word is: 'mixed-ability,' 'integrated,' or 'inclusive,'" admits Allison Orr, artistic director of Forklift Danceworks. For promoting Body Shift, a weekendlong dance workshop co-presented by Forklift and VSA Texas (a state organization for arts and disability), Orr seems to have settled on "mixed-ability," but the fact is that each of those terms is relevant. With best-case-scenario enrollment, workshop classes will combine members of various abilities, integrate participants' movement and ideas, and include more – more ways of doing things, more awareness, more experiences – than a typical dance class.

Orr is no stranger to working with people who are differently-abled. In 2003, she created Sextet, an acclaimed dance for two typically abled dancers and two nondancers who were visually impaired and their guide dogs. Since then, she has choreographed for the theatre group Actual Lives and taught integrated dance classes at Austin Community College as well as in partnership with VSA. For Body Shift, Orr and VSA Executive Director Celia Hughes have gathered a small crew of area teachers who have experience working with people with disabilities and whose disciplines, including contact improvisation and modern dance, inform integrated work. Open to people of all abilities and all levels of movement experience, the workshop aims to facilitate an exploration of true integration in the dance studio.

Integrated dance class at ACC
Integrated dance class at ACC

Because it doesn't serve anyone to pretend that just getting folks with disabilities into the studio or onstage once in a while is a great accomplishment. "It's not like, just because you have a disability, you're a good dancer," Orr says. "Just like anybody else, you need class. You need opportunities to try things." And because getting differently abled dancers into the studio and involved in the movement conversation can bring new ideas to contemporary dance – a genre that many practitioners and observers and anti-So You Think You Can Dance types agree could use some shaking up. In a studio where not everyone looks the same, moves the same, or has the same sensations, new ways of moving and relating are bound to be discovered.

These discoveries result from questions, says teacher Julie Nathanielsz, who will lead the Friday class Image/Touch/Movement. She emphasizes that differences in body shape, placement, and perception of pressure initiate the queries: "In the classroom, you have able-bodied and disabled people trying to figure out what works, how can we do this? There's something really rich in there being a question just in the co-presence of two people." And the language teachers use to elicit movement – because the "do-it-like-I-do" approach has major limitations in a mixed-ability setting – leaves movement open to interpretation and exploration. "I might say 'reach' instead of 'everybody put your arms like this,'" explains Orr, putting her arms over her head. The resulting movements might make a visual Wikipedia entry on the definition of "reach."

Perhaps because of this plurality, able-bodied students in integrated dance classes may have richer experiences than those in typical classes. Body Shift participants may register for the whole weekend or single classes, and Orr recommends the Sunday class, facilitated by Nathanielsz and herself, for those who want just an introduction to mixed-ability work. And afterward? Orr hopes you'll continue without her: "I'm really interested in not being the holder of mixed-ability work. [The workshop is] really a way to get people energized and excited and to see these teachers, and for teachers to come – able-bodied teachers – and dancers to come and see the opportunities in the work and then for people to go off and do their thing."

Body Shift will take place Oct. 22–24 at Galaxy Dance Studio, 1700 S. Lamar #338 and the AustinVentures StudioTheater at Ballet Austin, 501 W. Third. For more information, call 454-9912 or visit

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Body Shift, artists with disabilities, VSA Texas, Forklift Danceworks, Allison Orr, Julie Nathanielsz, Celia Hughes

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