Participating in Axis Dance Company (world-renowned physically integrative dance company) Intensive Summer is one of the best things I have done. It was an unexpected journey full of struggles, challenges, but in the end a rewarding journey.
Am I a trained dancer? No.
Did I have experience with modern dance? No.
So why did I do it? Because I love dancing! I always say I’m a dancer at heart. I grew up in Mexico and grew up dancing and always encouraged to dance. For this scenario and type of dance, however, I did it because I believe we all have unlimited potential and it’s worth to tap into as much as you can. You just might surprise yourself (and others perhaps). When you free your mind, anything is possible!
Was it easy? Not at all, but that is the main reason I want to share this with you.
Life is about opportunities; I constantly look for all sorts of new opportunities, and others just come to me fortunately (like this opportunity), but I went for it!
About a year ago, I won a “Judges Award” from Judy Smith, co-founder of Axis, at a wheelchair Latin ballroom competition with American DanceWheels Foundation at the Cheryl Burke Dance Studio. That is where my inspiration and motivation began to participate in Axis’ Summer Intensive Program.
I already supported Axis and their beautiful work, as I consider their unique form of dance one of the best dance delicacies, so having the opportunity to actually work with them would be a great opportunity. Why not right?
I found it interesting because it is:
I knew their summer intensive is highly intense and physical. The word “intensive” is in there for a good reason. Being physically challenging is what made this all the more interesting. I’m on a path to push myself to learn other forms of dancing in my wheelchair and to find new ways to express and use my body. It’s all a process. It hasn’t been easy to become paralyzed from mid-chest down, not have core muscles, and struggle with balance. It’s not just about not being able to dance with my legs and lower extremities; but it’s also about feeling balanced, as much as possible, in my chair to actually be able to use the upper body that I have and move my arms as much as I can in the most graceful way…without forgetting the chair. So I did not expect this to be easy, but the whole point was to push myself and learn.
Out of my Comfort Zone:
I was very interested in specifically learning what modern dance is about and ultimately, I was interested in seeing how modern and physically integrative dance and I would mesh. Would it mesh well I wondered… Would it be something I’d like participating IN, not just appreciating as a spectator, which I had done… I knew an important component of the training is improvisation, contact improvisation and that is something I found completely out of my comfort zone, but the more I challenge myself to feel as if I’m out of my “comfort zone”, the more I know I’m pushing myself and that’s exactly what I want to continue to do in life…ALWAYS! Push myself, even when it’s not comfortable.
My main goal was to complete the training successfully. However, I kept wondering if I would be able to “keep up with everyone.” I knew people, trained and non-trained dancers, from all over the world apply and are part of this intensive week. I wondered if I would be the only one with literally zero training, especially with contemporary dance. I was concerned with this the most. Thinking of maintaining my energy levels throughout the whole week, as we were going to train (dance, move) everyday, for 6 days and dance for 6-7 ours a day was not intimidating at all… (Sarcasm). But I was up for the challenge!
What is great about Axis and their wonderful staff is they had been very helpful and accessible well before the first day of the training, which made this process easier to go through. As several people came from overseas, Axis provided a document with great suggestions for everyone coming out of the area and out of the country.
The Journey Begins:
I did not know what to expect. I was actually pleasantly surprised to see that a lot of people, all ages and all types of bodies were there. This was a fun aspect for me because I love meeting other people, but this same aspect was difficult for others participating as getting to know new people was something some struggled with. We did all sorts of fun and engaging activities to get our bodies moving with one another and to get to know each other. However, something that sticks out in my mind about that day was an exercise we did as a group to publicly share something we were nervous about, excited about, and goals for the week. The best thing about this exercise for me was to see that every single person there was nervous about something, and Axis staff also participated in this exercise; they too were nervous and excited about something and had their own goals and shared those with us. Some people even shared the same reasons as mine, which was great to see I wasn’t alone; I wasn’t the only one worried about something to some level. This built a sense of camaraderie.
We were told Axis would do their best to make this a great and fun experience for us, but at the same time, they talked about each person taking responsibility for the journey to come. I knew it was about each one of us taking charge for ourselves. At the end of the day, Axis could only do so much; the rest was up to us!
The second day was the first long day with all 3 classes, (technique, improvisation and composition).
I knew very little about technique. I had a very difficult time learning and remembering choreographies. There was a good amount of contact with other people, starting to come into others’ space, etc. The first full day was a huge overload of things for me, challenging mentally and physically, a lot of moving and touching, all sorts of new things, which was also so interesting. Meeting cool people from all over (Russia, London, Europe, as well as from all across the U.S.!), so many different types of bodies; a lot of them (if not more of them) were fully abled body dancers, different disabilities, and so many different ways to dance with each other.
There was a “contact jam” on Monday with live music, open to the community. Everyone just dances together and you can choose to dance with somebody, partner, let other people in and dance in a group and exit. You choose to jump in if you want and you can leave step out the contact jam session whenever. This was in the evening, and by that point for me that day had been enough. Not only had we danced and moved a lot that day, but a lot of choreographies had started, as well as putting our own dance together, composing that and the pressure to know we would make a duet to perform at the end of the week, which we started that day. So the contact jam was something I appreciated at distance, a great time to observe others during this interesting session, a time to absorb it all and reflect. However, in order for me to participate in this contact jam I would’ve liked to have this session sometime during the middle of the week, once I had had more time to get comfortable. I know we all need our times and some things are just a process, and one you can only go through on your own… I’ve thought about this and so many things go into this. One is how easily do you let people into your life? That is something that takes time for me, so in a way it was reflected in this scenario. My advice for somebody else, however, is if you can push yourself to get there, jump into the contact jam get in there and do it!
*Learning so many different choreographies was very difficult for me:
We worked on a group piece with “two phrases” (two dances basically) and also another dance with a partner, a duet we would put together ourselves. The duet changed and evolved all week. Every day we were given a new task in composition class for our duet, so everyone’s piece kept on changing in different ways. For example, my piece started of as very peaceful. However, after it kept on changing with the editing process it turned into a piece with a much faster pace, it seemed suspenseful, perhaps somewhat disturbing, but very powerful! Seeing this composition process and being an active part throughout the week was a real gift for me.
Watch a short clip of me dancing! Click HERE to view Part 1Axis DANCE Company One Week Intensive Training
Some things were really out of my comfort zone stuff:
Contact improvisation, being so close to people in an artistic way in this setting was new for me and learning how to be comfortable with others during contact improvisation was a process but by the end of the week, I was much more comfortable.
I had a difficult time learning so many different choreographies, as I had mentioned, but of course all on top of figuring out what I could do as steps with my body, in my chair, using what I’ve got, balancing and highlighting as much as possible. I started to feel bad about not being able to quickly learn the choreographies fully. I started feeling bad for not being able to keep up with the pace. However, I also kept my motivation up to finish the week; I knew I wasn’t going to quit, but how it was all going to turn out? That I wasn’t too sure about…
During the middle of the week, I struggled with several things:
I struggled with the guilt of not knowing the dances and messing up with the group phrase. Keep in mind I was not the only one, but I almost felt like I was. In a sense I didn’t care other people didn’t know the choreographies because I wanted to know and perform them well as the perfectionist that I am. The one I felt worst about was my duet with my awesome partner. I felt bad because if I messed up, it would be very noticeable compared to the group dance because it was only going to be two of us. And there’s no way I could “compete” with my partner Sophie Brown because she’s an incredibly talented dancer. That wasn’t intimidating either… Lol. I felt bad working with a very well trained dancer. I remember feeling, “she’s so good dancing, why would she want to spend all this extra time with me and have to work harder to meet each other half way.” I felt as if it would be a waste of time for her…
I bottled up these feelings inside of me because I wasn’t even sure how I was feeling; digesting it all was a process. Yes, I’m all about talking to people about how you feel, but when you’ve only met this person for a couple days that makes it so much more difficult to “open up.” But I had to open up and talk to her about my feelings. She said she actually found it interesting working with me and seeing how we could come together and put something beautiful. She said if she wanted to dance with someone who was very trained and could easily do all sorts of movements, she wouldn’t have been involved with this to begin with and that was something she did not want; that was not interesting for her.
Working with different types of bodies, abilities and even different levels of experience is what she said was interesting. So we then worked really hard, came up with new ideas, tried stuff out, suggested things for each other, it was a mutual exchange. There was a “shorter day” in the middle of the week for people to have free time; well we didn’t take time “to ourselves,” but instead invested time into our piece, practiced over and over and just worked hard. We had people take video of us and we would watch it and then come up with new ideas, take some things out, etc. and we started to feel much better about our piece!
One very important thing I had to think about was, do I stay in my wheelchair the whole time? Should I get out of it and perform on the floor? How much help would I need to do this? Would there be enough time? Would it be graceful and/or flawless? Right off the bat I knew that it wouldn’t be flawless because floor to chair transfers are not seamless or flawless for me, but could we come up with a way to make it more graceful and part of our dance?
I asked myself, “do I feel like I have to get out of my chair to prove that I’m cool? Or am I comfortable staying in my chair the whole time?” especially due to the fact that we had very little time (less than 2 minutes). Reflecting back it’s like wanted to do big movements and almost get to “Sophie’s level” (my partner) who could do all sorts of big movements and elevations…
The biggest breakthrough was that we then talked about the difference in big and small and finite movements. She said, “I find more interesting a small movement or a movement that you do your way than you trying to do a big movement ‘my way.’” I thought, she’s so right! My inspiration for this became a beautiful dancer named Petra with ample experience dancing. What I found most beautiful in her is how comfortable she is with herself, she knows her body so well, how to use her wheelchair, and uses what she has to do her movements in a way that is so unique, so her, and it’s the simple details that make a dance stand out; so I decided to work on that. This breakthrough really helped our piece and most of all helped me as a dancer. I believe in embracing what you have. You have to know what you have and what you can do in order to highlight that in the best ability. It’s a process but one we can all do, regardless of your physical abilities. I first spent time wanting to do big turns somehow. Subconsciously I probably wanted to be up to my partner’s training level. My focus then shifted and I started finding the beauty in small movements, in being still, in embracing my body’s movements, excited to know what those are, to know myself as a dancer.
We even learned about the dance of being still and I found the beauty in being still in the middle of a dance, how powerful that can be, how that can evoke so many different things.
I went from feeling low in the middle of the week to once again excited! And so confident about all of this too .
I faced another big challenge and I’m only sharing it because I hope you or people get something out of it:
As I had mentioned, I messed up during the group phrase throughout the learning process, which is only understandable. I’ve always been the type of student who sits in front of a classroom. I’m just used to that because I learn things better because I can pay attention. I was most of the time in the front. Someone said out loud, “if you don’t know the piece, you might not want to be in the front”, as eye contact was made with me. Not only did I hear it, but many people around me heard it; they felt it was directed towards me and weren’t too happy with this.
Did I take it personal? No, because I agreed with this person. If you don’t know the piece, you might not want to be in the front, it’s true. The reality is that I still didn’t know the whole piece, so why would I get mad? But did it make me feel a little bad? Yes, initially. However, I used this as motivation, to push myself to learn the choreography and remember all the steps. And I said, I’m going to get this dance down! I tried to move towards the back or middle of the room, but it just didn’t seem to work and I always ended up in the front by the time we all got set up. It seemed the front continued to be my place, so I thought, “better get this down since you’ll be front line.” I was excited about it though and pushed myself a lot.
I was front line the day of the performance AND I remembered ALL choreographies! People said to me the day of our performance afterwards, “great job on staying in the front and not going to the back after what was said.” Someone even said, “I thought you were no longer going to be in the front, but that’s awesome that you stayed!” Remember this is my fist time performing and dancing modern dance and surrounded by so many trained dancers. I stayed in the front with my head up high. Was I the best dancer? No way… I was far from being that, but I not only met my initial goal which was to complete the week, but I had so many breakthroughs and in the face of someone doubting my potential I proved to myself (firstly) and the whole group that I COULD do it.
It’s not about “winning.” It’s about growing, challenging yourself and accomplishing what you set out to do and MORE! The duet with my partner was a success, many people liked it and we heard, “beautiful, powerful, great ending.” Regardless of the difference in levels of training, it was our piece, one we only could come up with together.
Did me being in my chair affect us negatively? No, it actually gave us the ability to do other things we otherwise wouldn’t have been able to do; much like the dancers who had crutches or walkers, it actually made the dance more interesting to see what they would do together and how they would incorporate their device.
At the end of this training, I was more comfortable all around moving. I discovered all sorts of movements I hadn’t used before. It’s like I became an open book; I found all sorts of interesting things I didn’t know were inside, but I also have a lot more blank pages to write in this book, and that is why at the end of this journey I made a commitment to myself to not stop dancing. It does not matter what type of dancing it is, I will just keep on dancing! I will continue to explore my body and new movements.
I became more comfortable in my chair all together.
With a lot of the technique classes, I got more skilled with my chair; for example, I’m more comfortable popping up wheelies, leaning off to the sides, forward, etc. I discovered I have more balance than I thought I had which was really exciting. I’m less scared to loose balance too. I actually started off dancing using an abdominal binder I would put around my waist and chair, actually around the chair to help me feel more balanced to the chair (which is a good tip).
I then raised the bar and pushed myself to do my choreographies without the binder. I discovered I could do all movements but one, and that one movement I adjusted to something I could do! It was great exercise, physically challenging, awesome meeting people, everything learned in all levels are things I left with, but that will forever stay with me… above all, the forever friendships and interactions there are what have meant the most to me and those people will always be in my heart and mind.
Did this meet my expectations? Yes, without a doubt and exceeded them!
Would I do it again? Yes! By the way, every dancer (most of us first time doing this training with Axis) completed the training except for one who had to leave for last minute personal reasons. So that says something about this!
Would I recommend it to someone? Absolutely! Not just someone but everyone open to dancing and moving.
This sums it up for me: that week with Axis and all the lovely people from all over the world was so much more than “wheelchair dancing.” We just danced! But that week meant much more than “just dancing”; it taught me about myself, it pushed me to new heights, it expanded my potential and deepened my love for dancing!
Dancing with your mind, heart, and soul it’s much more than just dancing around. This journey also proves that bigger isn’t always more or better. Remember it’s the simple things that make a dance stand out and interesting, much like life; sometimes the real joys are the smallest and simplest but meaningful things. Find the beauty in those because that is a gift.
*Don’t forget we are the ones who usually limit ourselves. SO DON’T LIMIT YOURSELF; OPEN ARMS AND OPEN-MINDED TRY NEW THINGS
*Take Chances! Notice “chances” is plural? that’s for a reason
*Don’t forget regardless of what people might say about you and your potential, you have an active choice in letting those comments in and/or believing them.
*Even when others underestimate you, you believe in yourself! Not only did I go for this training, but while being in there, for good reasons, someone seemed to underestimate my potential (including myself for a bit), but I then chose to not let it affect me and in the end I remembered all choreographies.
If you like to dance and you’re interested in experiencing this, whether you have formal dance experience or not, I say go for it! And if you know someone who might benefit from reading this, please share this with him or her!
SPECIAL THANKS TO AXIS, THEIR STAFF, AS WELL AS ALL THE BEAUTIFUL AND INCREDIBLY TALENTED DANCERS I HAD THE AMAZING OPPORTUNITY TO DANCE WITH AND GET TO KNOW.
Axis Summer Intensive is a yearly event, during the summer and applications must be submitted a few months in advance.
For more information about Axis, visit: http://axisdance.org/ There’s many ways you can support AXIS, their programs, and their dancers. You can also watch them perform, a true delicacy. You can find out about their upcoming events on their website.
Photos taken during the week: