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Robert Abrams
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NYU Langone Medical Center
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Dancing Dreams Winter Recital

by Robert Abrams
December 6, 2009
NYU Langone Medical Center
550 1st Ave
New York, NY 10016
(212) 263-7300
Dancing Dreams is a program of education and performance for children, ranging in age from 3 to 17 years, with medical conditions that are usually disabling or very disabling (children with physical challenges that preclude them from participating in community dance classes). Thirty two children and forty four helpers (high school students) performed a Winter Recital with nine dance numbers in an auditorium at the NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City.

The obvious question when presented with a program in which disabled children are taught dance is "Does this program help improve the children's physical and mental health?" While this is a valid question, and based on what I saw during the performance I am sure Dancing Dreams does help with health issues, I am going to focus on a more difficult question: "How can a performance by children often regarded as disabled be judged as dance, both with and without regard for the performers' disabilities?"

"Dance" is one of those concepts that seems simple on first glance, but when one starts to examine it closely, becomes ever more complex and finely honed.

One definition of dance would be "Movement set to music." The setting of this movement is usually assumed to involve footwork. And then a further assumption is often made to say, or imply, that true dance consists only of the subset of movement which is performed by people with extensive training, technique, discipline and artistry. If you follow this reasoning to one possible logical conclusion, one would say that movement is only dance if the person performing it is very beautiful (however beauty is defined), and can lift her leg in a perfectly straight line above her head while standing on the other leg, also perfectly straight and on pointe, while doing something pretty and gently rounded with her arms. If the person in question is a man, make both legs perfectly straight in a horizontal direction and have him leaping as high as possible.

One can attack this image by talking about social dance (attack being a positive quality in dance), but I am going to restrict myself to a discussion based in performance dance.

I would start by talking about Wheelchair dance (also sometimes known by other names to put more emphasis on the integration of able-bodied and disabled persons in the same performance, but in this case the emphasis on the need for a wheelchair is intentional). I have seen some dance performances that included people in need of wheelchairs (sometimes performing with the wheelchair and sometimes not) where the performances were so polished I didn't really notice the wheelchair. The impression, both first and last, was of a dance that held its own when compared to much other high quality dance performances I have seen. Instead of changes of weight of feet to mark with or against the music, there were hand motions transmitted through wheels and whole bodies moving with the music. The whole body is supposed to move with the music even in footed dance, so when Wheelchair dance is remarkable, it is remarkable because it is remarkable dance, and only secondarily because there happens to be a wheelchair involved.

But suppose the person in question is so disabled that even the use of a wheelchair is not so possible? What if the person can only move her arms to a limited extent? What if the person can only move her arms to a limited extent, but even that is only possible with some help from another person? Is that dance?

Having seen Dancing Dreams perform, I would say "Yes."

My positive judgment of Dancing Dreams is based on several types of evidence. The children broadcasted clear expressions of enthusiasm. The show included a glimpse, through a slide show, of the rehearsal process that occurred prior to the show, showing the children's effort that led up to the show. The audience was clearly responding to the performance – some were singing along. The art in the show included arm movements, facial expression, twirling, as well as some footwork in rhythm. Sometimes children were mostly swaying to the music in an artistically appropriate way. Sometimes swaying and nothing else, if done with feeling, is beautiful to watch (such as at a wedding). Sometimes body sway is a difficult component of a dance (such as in some styles of competitive Ballroom).

Dance isn't just movement. There are also costumes and props to consider. Dancing Dreams had decorated leg braces, along with the expected tutus and decorous feathered fans.

Most of the performances were based in a ballet mode, but not always. Some of the numbers were "kid-like" with the inclusion, for example, of the Hokey-Pokey (don't knock it until you have tried it – my own early dance training included the Mexican Hat Dance, another excellent dance style sometimes associated with kids, and I ended up as the President of the Dance Critics Association).

Great dancers often have an understated grace and a presence that fills the stage with the smallest movements. I felt at least some of both of these qualities in the Dancing Dreams performances.

It is true that Dancing Dreams presented a student recital (with helpers and a teacher in the front doing some "conducting" as would be common with a musical orchestra but is almost never seen in dance), and the organizers did not pretend otherwise. This was not ABT- or Nrityagram-level dance performance, but it didn't need to be. There was a full house in the audience and on stage. As best as I could tell from looking around, everyone in attendance came away with some joy added to their lives. Adding joy to life is one of Dance's core missions, so in this regard Dancing Dreams accomplished its mission as a dance performance.

Since Dancing Dreams presented a student recital, it would not be appropriate to offer criticism of the sort one is expected to offer for professional dance companies. Still, I would be remiss in my obligations as a professional critic if I did not offer at least one suggestion for improvement. The printed program for the performance featured a lovely image of a ballerina standing en pointe, wearing a delicate set of blue butterfly wings, gazing upwards in a seasonally appropriate winter scene. The problem is that while this image is lovely, and may very well be the kind of image the children performers themselves have in mind when they think of dance, this image looks very much like a conventionally physically perfect sort of dancer. For next year's recital, I would like to see Dancing Dreams commission an image that would be just as lovely, but which would feature a figure either based on one of the student performers themselves, a real professional dancer who defies expectations of what non-conventional bodies can do or an idealized conception of what a Dancing Dreams dancer could become when she, and the field of dance as a whole, matures into adulthood.

Dancing Dreams may have presented a student recital, but it also got me to musing more broadly about where professional level dance could go and how to think about it. I think that Dancing Dreams, in combination with professional choreography incorporating wheelchairs and well-crafted dance shows presenting the lives of people with "movement disorders" such as Autism, begins to suggest that it is possible to develop both a discipline and an aesthetic for dance by people who in an earlier age would have been rejected without the least thought. Suppose a young girl starts out only being able to move an arm about an inch. At least she is encouraged to move what she can. Then her range of motion increases a little. Then she adds a grace within the range of motion of which she is capable. Then a choreographer combines these small motions into a simple choreography, and then something more complex. Perhaps this leads to a paying audience beyond friends and family, and perhaps it does not, but this last step doesn't really matter. The effort will add art to the world, by and for an expanded number of people. I, for one, believe that such expansion of art is both worthy and necessary. Perhaps all it takes to become a Dancer is one dance class and the internal decision to think of oneself as a Dancer, the rest being just ever higher levels of transcendence achieved through study and practice. Dancing Dreams has helped me to expand my appreciation of the possibilities of dance, and for that I am grateful.
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