Why Us? Why Dance for All Bodies? (Part 2)
Hello, thank you for reading along on our journey. This is part 2 of how DfAB got started, highlighting the chance occurrences, questions and obstacles Tess and I have faced on the road.
After the info session, where I coincidentally ran into Tess, I started meeting one on one with Big Ideas advisors. I remember my first advising session with Francis, where I had some possible ideas in my mind for what I wanted to do but they weren’t very clear or defined. I knew I really enjoyed the dance class I organized at ZSFGH, but I wasn't sure what the project would look like.
As you might have guessed, at the time our target audience for these dance classes would be amputees or individuals with limb differences, as that was the community I had the most experience with. However, this has changed over time to include a broader community of people with physical disabilities and most recently, people with disabilities. We have embraced this community as we got to know many disabled dancers and noticed the need to address the lack of dance classes for people with different kinds of disabilities.
Meeting Judith Smith & Stephanie Bastos
While working on the Big Ideas pre-proposal, I met with another very influential individual, Judith Smith, one of the founders of AXIS Dance Company and our chance #5. I reached out to Judy online and she was kind enough to make time to meet with me in person to discuss my ideas. At the time, as I was working alone on this project, I was seeking a lot of advice from mentors and experts in the dance and disability field. If I didn’t have Judy or the Big Ideas advisors to give me the validation and the information I needed, I would have been running around in circles in my head.
We met at Timeless Coffee Shop in Oakland, which I also learned that day from Judy to be a vegan bakery! “Yeah, they really don’t advertise themselves as a vegan bakery” I remember us saying. At the time, the fires were going on in California and the air quality index in the Bay Area was starting to get really high so people were advised to stay home and wear masks when they left. So I felt extra grateful that Judy met with me that day. I shared my ideas about the project, asked her for her thoughts and suggestions for dancers with disabilities who might be willing to teach. I was looking for new dance instructors who could teach at the amputee support group, as AXIS Dance Company dancers were very busy. Judy suggested a couple of instructors we can work with and mentioned Stephanie Bastos, our chance #6, who is a previous AXIS dancer and who also happens to be an amputee due to a car accident. “She might not get back to you though, so don’t keep your hopes high!” I remember Judy saying, but she was actually the only instructor to get back to me. And we are so glad she did! I gave Judy a hug, thanked her for her time. I was excited about the idea of working with a new instructor.
I reached out to Stephanie online and she invited me to observe one of her youth classes in Oakland. I was excited to meet Stephanie but also to spend time with some 7 year olds for the afternoon. I even got to do a little swing dance performance, showing them the Tranky Doo, a line dance done to Ella Fitzgerald The Dipsy Doodle. I got a very positive energy from Stephanie that day and we stayed in touch to schedule another dance class for the amputee support group. That was the second time I organized a dance class and it was met with a similar very positive response from the participants. I was feeling hopeful! In November 2018, I submitted a two page pre-proposal for Big Ideas with the idea of organizing more dance classes for amputees.
Tess is in!
Although submitting the pre-proposal felt good, I knew I won't be able to do this by myself. I needed additional brains to work on this project with me - and I knew Tess had both the brains and the heart to do it. Together we went to another dance class I organized at ZSFGH on December 7th, 2018. A day we hope to celebrate every year! (You will see why in a minute.) This class was taught by Richard Gibran, who is a dancer from Mexico who completed the AXIS Summer Teacher Training and many other teaching programs. We got 4-5 amputees at the class who were taking a dance class like this for the first time. It was an experiment for all of us, but I could see Tess blend in seamlessly.
Once we left the class and were standing outside of the hospital building, waiting for an Uber on Potrero Avenue and 23rd Street, Tess said: “I think I want to do this. That was so great!” That one sentence right there made a huge difference in this journey, because together we created Dance for All Bodies, which we secretly call our mochi-ball. That day we also got two free pies - so yes it was a very special day!
Can We Really Do This? And the Importance of Validation
After learning that the pre-proposal passed the initial stage, Tess and I immediately started working on the proposal. We spend so much time in Big Ideas advising sessions that Blum Center started feeling like a second home. One of the advisors for Big Ideas, who became our number one fan and supporter was Dani Bicknell, chance #7. Dani provided connections, skills and resources to us on a variety of topics. But most important was the sense of validation she gave us.
Tess and I struggled with a lot of questions like “Are we the right people to be doing this?” to “Is this even a valuable idea?”. These questions stemmed from a variety of different reasons. One, we were aware of our position and dynamics as non-disabled individuals working on a project to serve individuals with disabilities. Two, we were surrounded by engineers and scientists at UC Berkeley who were able to come up with amazing innovations and projects that fit into the tech for social good category or scientific innovations that could save lives. I thought maybe our idea isn't as valuable because we are not proposing an innovative technology.
At the same time, I knew that what we experienced and felt in those dance classes were real. And I also knew that an innovation does not have to be complex, it can be as simple as providing dance classes that prioritize and are designed for people with disabilities. It sounds so simple when you say it, but then I thought, why hasn’t it been done already? (It is actually more complex than it sounds.) We thought if we don’t do something about this, things will stay the same. So we kept pushing and moving forward.
Meeting Marc Brew
As part of the preparation for the proposal, Big Ideas also matched us with an expert in the field to provide mentorship. For our project, it was Marc Brew, the current Artistic Director of AXIS and also our chance #8. We were so lucky that Marc agreed to mentor us regarding our project and teach us more about disability advocacy and physically integrated dance. We usually met at the cafe right below AXIS’s practice space in Oakland. Tess and I would take BART together, grab a chai tea to warm ourselves up.
During these meetings we asked questions about how we can fit into the already existing world of physically integrated dance and even regarding how to name ourselves. Looking back at those conversations I now realize how little I knew about dance & disability.
We are really grateful that Marc, just like Judy, was willing to teach us and provide us with resources. He, like many other figures on the path, was very supportive, yet gave us a word of caution about the limited support available for projects like this.
What’s Next? And Challenges
After hours of relentless work, laughter, research and surveys Tess and I submitted our proposal. We celebrated the submission of our proposal by having Cinnaholic and we thanked the Big Ideas Advisors with a coconut cream pie that we were very proud of. (One thing you must know about us is that we love celebrating our small accomplishments with baking and food. )
In April 2019, we learned that we were awarded 2nd place in the Arts & Social Change Category in Big Ideas. There was a sense of relief and pride but also apprehension as we knew that we had to do what we set out to do.
The period of time after winning the competition was challenging in many aspects. Firstly, we felt that there weren’t any funding opportunities or competitions that matched the work we did, except for Big Ideas. Secondly, we were both working full time and working on this project by ourselves could feel overwhelming at times. Thirdly and most importantly, we weren’t getting many participants in our classes, especially amputees. I had to leave the Functional Limb Service team at ZSFGH at that point (because I started a full time job) but I didn’t notice that I would also leave my connection with the amputee community.
As Tess and I started thinking more about why we weren’t getting participants in our classes, we started to realize that the service we are providing exists in a world built for non-disabled individuals. We recognized that we can’t expect to have twenty individuals with disabilities in these dance classes without addressing the inaccessibility of transportation, employment opportunities or the instability of the lives of many individuals with disabilities. That is why we believe that we need to be advocates and allies for not only disability advocacy work but for all kinds of injustices. We realize the intersectionality of our identities, take steps to learn and support our communities more strongly every day.
Tess and I kept moving although we felt discouraged at times. We pushed each other and lifted one another. And life keeps presenting us with more chance opportunities. Meeting all of our instructors, our new team members as well as our participants has been chance opportunities #9,10,11…
There are so many more moments to be shared, cherished and remembered. I wish I could share them all with you but maybe in another blog post. We deeply thank everyone who has believed in us and has joined this family. Thank you!