Dallas — Dance educator Misty Owens has devoted most of her career to discovering fun and creative ways for people with mental and physical disabilities to get involved in the art of dance. Her first experience working with adults with disabilities was with Joanie Carlisle’s dance troupe, Buen Viaje, in New Mexico where Owens also earned her B.F.A in dance at the University of New Mexico.
“I was literally in the classroom with them every week learning how to work with people with cerebral palsy and Down syndrome and anything in between,” Owens says.
This experience would later come in handy when Owens started teaching at the New York-based Mark Morris Dance Group where the Dance for Parkinson’s Disease (PD) program was founded back in 2001.
“Mark Morris had just started his dance company in 2001 when Olie Westheimer, the founder of the Brooklyn Parkinson Group, approached him about classes for members of the group. The classes consisted of six people and were taught once a month by Mark Morris dancers John Heginbotham and David Leventhal. I was invited to teach a few months later when they began holding the classes on a more weekly basis and that was the beginning of this program building.”
Currently in its 15th year, the Dance for PD program offers specialized dance classes to people with Parkinson’s, their families, friends and care partners in six locations around New York City and through their network affiliates in more than 100 communities in 13 countries around the world.
Dallas is lucky to be among one of these 100 communities thanks to Owens, who took the initiative and reached out to the Dallas Area Parkinsonism Society after moving back home in 2010. “It took a little while to get people following the program, but I started Jan. 4, 2011, with my first class and I had about nine students,” she says. “We would meet once a week at Texas Health Presbyterian Dallas and over the summer we changed to twice a week because of the demand. And since August 2010, the Dallas program is the only one in the nation that consistently meets twice a week.”
Through the use of imagery and storytelling Owens is able to get her students to open their minds up to new ways of moving no matter how well their bodies are working. “The essence of dance is joy and there is nobody on the planet who dances that doesn’t experience some sort of release while doing it. For someone with a movement disorder 99.9 percent of their day is about navigating symptoms, but when they step into my class they become this entity who can be anything from a bird soaring to the swimmer Esther Williams. Using the imagination and creativity to immerse ourselves in an alternate world, which for me is the vocabulary of dance, that sort of possibility about an unknown discovery has so much potential.”
Owens has been wanting her students to perform for a while, and they get will their chance this Friday thanks to an artistic collaboration with the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA) facilitated by Amanda Blake, the DMA interim director of education and head of family, access and school experiences. The performance concludes a four-month long pilot program in which members of the local Dance for PD and Movement Disorders classes were brought into the DMA for gallery discussions followed by interactive dance and movement workshops.
“Amanda Blake has been an absolute champion and the creative force behind inviting me to come to the museum and do this access program with my Dance for PD students. Together we crafted out a four-month venture for people with Parkinson’s to come into the museum and experience a completely new world.” She adds, “One of the reasons many of my students agreed to perform was because they actually felt more liberated, and safe and free to express themselves in a completely new context in the DMA.”
About 19 Dance for PD students (some standing and some seated) ranging in ages from mid 50’s to early 90’s will perform a new piece choreographed by Owens and inspired by works of art in the Jackson Pollock: Blind Spots exhibition which runs at the DMA through March 20. “The piece is comprised of three sections of movement and each section is inspired by different parts of the Jackson Pollock exhibition.” She adds, “And before that we are presenting an excerpt from the Mark Morris piece Falling Down Stairs from The Bourree Project. The entire performance is probably about 35 minutes long, but it’s their first venture into performing and I am excited to see what happens at the final presentation.”
The Dance for PD students of Dallas will take the stage for the first time in Mark Morris’ Falling Down Stairs and an original work by Owens at 2 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 19 at the DMA.
» Katie Dravenstott is a freelance writer and dance instructor in Dallas. Visit her blog at www.kddance.wordpress.com