Our Brief History
Open Arms Dance Project was formed with the support of a Boise City Arts & History grant during the 2009 Special Olympics World Games held in Idaho. Initially, Open Arms was an inclusive dance group that welcomed dancers with and without disabilities and performed at three events during the 2009 Special Olympics.
In 2011, Open Arms evolved into an inclusive and multigenerational company of dancers who are committed to promoting relationships with and respect for people with disabilities, while creating high quality dance art. Our goal is to foster positive attitudes about the value of people with disabilities in our society. We hope these shifts in thinking shape all the dancers in our company as well as the audience members who attend our performances.
Our Full History
While teaching and developing programs for a local dance studio in 2008, studio owner Brenda Wright and I wanted a group of dancers to perform at the 2009 Special Olympics World Games hosted in Boise, Idaho. Brenda left it up to me to form and lead the group, while she wrote a proposal to fund the project. All my personal and professional experience with disability and dance swirled around in my mind, and I knew this could be something very different than the typical youth dance group. The idea of forming a group of dancers with and without disabilities really excited me. At night, I had dreams about an inclusive group in which people of all ages packed into a room, eager to dance together. This felt immensely important, and I was pulled into action by a momentum that traveled through me to create something that wanted to exist.
I pitched my vision to Brenda, who applied to Boise City Department of Arts & History for funding. Our grant was approved, and Open Arms Dance Project was born! I gathered together middle school students without disabilities and all ages of dancers with disabilities. I choreographed and directed the group, learning about the difficulties and joys of full inclusion in a dance setting. It was an invigorating challenge, and Open Arms Dance Project successfully performed at three events during the 2009 Special Olympics World Games.
After this big event, I had difficulty keeping Open Arms inclusive. Most young dancers without disabilities were not interested in dancing with the group without a high profile performance, such as the Special Olympics World Games, to work towards. I perpetually thought about how I could sustain an inclusive dance company. Someone even asked me, "Why would non-disabled people want to dance in this group? What's in it for them?" This suggested non-disabled people had nothing to learn from people with disabilities, nor any reason to create friendships with them, which unfortunately expressed a common attitude I was encountering. I was frustrated and this comment made me realize the urgent necessity for what I was trying to do -- transform attitudes about the value of people with disabilities in our society. I began justifying and articulating the importance of sustaining an inclusive dance company, first to myself, then on paper, and finally I began saying it out loud. I clarified in my mind that Open Arms Dance Project was a company committed to promoting relationships with and respect for people with disabilities, all while creating quality dance art. I distilled this into the Open Arms mission statement: To move the community towards greater compassion through our actions and our art.
One of the people who heard me advocating for an inclusive dance company was Leah Stephens Clark, Artistic Director of Balance Dance Company. In 2011, Leah and I decided to create a collaborative piece with both our dance companies. Leah enlisted Celeste Miller, one of the country's foremost community dance artists, to facilitate the creation of "Praying Mantis", a collaboratively choreographed dance with text for Open Arms and Balance. The result was an extraordinary and transformative experience for everyone involved. Open Arms Dance Project and Balance Dance Company are now sister companies, continuing to support each other in our missions and visions.
After this collaboration, people were excited about Open Arms Dance Project. However, I still did not have a consistent group of dancers without disabilities in the company. I decided to take a leap and make Open Arms multigenerational. My theory was by drawing from ages 7 to 70 + I would be able to gather enough dancers without disabilities to have a sustainable inclusive dance company. This model has worked beautifully, and since 2011, Open Arms Dance Project has been inclusive and multigenerational! My Artistic Associate, Ali Landers, and I choreograph two dance pieces each fall and winter, which the company performs each spring. This past 2014/2015 season was our best yet, with Ali's piece "Wheels Connected" touching people's hearts and truly carrying out our mission to move the community toward greater compassion.
While this represents the wonderful history of Open Arms Dance Project from 2008 to the present, there is a bit more to the story -- including my personal connection to disability. While dancing with Idaho Dance Theatre at Boise State University in 2000, I began working with people with disabilities one-on-one, in camps, and eventually as a Paraprofessional in a special education classroom. Then, funded by Idaho Parents Unlimited/ VSA Idaho's Creative Access Arts Programming and encouraged by my friend and fellow dancer Kayla Oakes, I began combining my love of dance and my work with people with disabilities by teaching my first dance classes for young adults and children with disabilities.
In 2002, I moved to Colorado to pursue my BFA degree in Modern Dance Performance and Choreography at the University of Colorado at Boulder, along with my Elementary teaching license. Soon after I moved away from home, my parents called to tell me my dad had been diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. My whole world changed. I was devastated to know that my dad would gradually become paralyzed and ultimately die from this disease. The next day, I went to my summer job at a camp for people with disabilities, and I heard a well meaning co-worker speaking in a tone of voice one would normally use when talking to a baby, but instead she was talking to a teenage girl who was non-verbal and in a wheelchair. Knowing my dad would need a wheelchair and probably be nearly non-verbal someday, I made a commitment to always speak to and treat anyone with a disability with complete respect.
I began traveling home about every 6 weeks. I pared back my educational plans, moving forward with my degree in dance, minus the certificate in education. I continued teaching dance classes for people with disabilities through Boulder Parks and Recreation. When I was home, I witnessed the challenges of physical disability firsthand as my dad became less and less mobile and my mom cared for him. Back at school, I danced out my sadness, and I danced with great reverence for each muscle I could move. I dedicated my dancing -- my rhythmic, joyful moving of muscles -- to my dad, as his muscles gradually became still.
On one visit home, I waved goodbye to my dad sitting in his wheelchair in the driveway as, true to our rural Idaho upbringing, my husband and I left to country swing dance the night away at the Elk's club. A year earlier, when my dad had full use of his legs, he would not have hesitated to join us. But now, he stayed home. My mom is the first to admit that my affinity for dance was passed down to me from my dad. I always loved two-stepping with him around the house and I mourned no longer being able to do this. I felt so sad and angry he wasn't joining us at the Elk's that night. As I waved at him, I fumed inside over the unfairness and a radical idea (at that time) arose within me -- everyone, with or with out disabilities, should have the freedom and opportunity to enjoy dance. This is truly the moment Open Arms Dance Project was born.
I graduated in May 2005 with my BFA degree in Modern Dance. My dad passed away that August. The joy that is cultivated and celebrated in Open Arms Dance Project is dedicated to the memory of my father, Wesley Allan Evans, and every other person with a body or mind that limits the full expression of their dancing soul.
- Megan Brandel