I am a dance maker and autism professional currently living in New Orleans, the ancestral homeland of the Chitimacha. This is not my home of choice but my home of chance. I’m married to a Coastie (nickname for a United States Coast Guardsman), whose job requires us to rehome about every three years. The act of rehoming, which I experience as utterly exhausting and remarkably intimate, has had an unexpected but transformative influence on my practice as an improvisational dance artist and composer. I’ve grown to liken organizing my home space to composing a dance. It’s an improvisation with my ensemble of objects. It’s also a ritual— a ritual that teaches me to keep paying attention, hones my decision-making skills, and unearths something about myself, my aesthetics, patterns, and how I like to be in relationship. As part of deepening this practice, I am currently a KonMari consultant-in-training.
The KonMari method of tidying, which focuses on what to keep rather than what to discard, blends seamlessly with my own ideas about organization. This methodology approaches organization through the lens of joy, selecting what to keep is about choosing items that bring you a sense of delight. I cultivate this same sense of delight when I’m selecting and arranging different items in my home. It’s as if I’m in conversation with my objects and my space, designing a series of installations as I move from room to room. Each time we move I have the opportunity not only to rearrange my belongings but deepen my relationship with them. At the end of her book, Spark Joy, Marie Kondo talks about the Japanese concept of yaoyorozu no kami, and the idea that all things, including our belongings, are imbued with spirit. I can sense the spirit and energy that resides within each of my things as I handle them and move them from place to place. Attending to and engaging with my belongings with this level of care not only allows me to sense their presence, but provides me with the opportunity to witness how their life supports my own. The reorganizing process offers me a renewed sense of appreciation for each of my possessions. Every time I set up a desk or display, I experiment with placing items in new and differing relationships to one another. I’m often delighted in what the results reveal about the nature of the objects themselves and how they take on new roles and meanings. This way of engaging with my belongings gives me a sense of purpose and direction, anchoring me through the transitional phases of rehoming time and time again.
I am also in a transitional phase with my work— a phase that finds me attempting to unpack and articulate the parallels between my work in dance and my work in autism. I am a classically trained dancer of the ballet, modern, and postmodern varieties, and while these codified forms inform my foundations, my interests have driven me to a place where they no longer accurately characterize who I am as a mover. Today, I simply describe myself as an improviser. I am also the founding director of Embrace Autism Singapore, but my degree is not in special education. I hold a degree in dance from Bennington College where my passion for autism emerged from my collaborative dance practice with Emily Climer, our work with Susan Sgorbati’s Emergent Improvisation Project, and my subsequent correspondence with neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni. Iacoboni’s research on mirror neurons coupled with our conversations about dance and the brain have been instrumental in shaping my ongoing work and research projects. I have long since been investigating how shared movement practices and modes of improvisational mirroring, joining, and recalling can be used for tuning into, and fostering empathy and interaction among partners. I have found these techniques to be effective both in and outside the realms of dance, and particularly so in therapeutic practices for children with autism or related developmental difficulties.
At Embrace Autism Singapore we partner with The Autism Treatment Center of America™, to bring The Son-Rise Program® training courses to parents and professionals in the autism community throughout South East Asia, where I lived from 2011 through 2017. I was drawn to their program because of its similarities to my work in dance. Their program focuses on connecting and building relationships with children through joining, a technique that is similar to the shared movement practices I use while improvising in the dance studio.
I have found that joining in the playroom and engaging in a shared movement practice in the dance studio are fundamentally similar. Both activities are an exercise in attunement— in connecting to someone else’s world in a way that requires you to tune in, deepen your understanding of what it means to listen, observe, and embody something that is not your own. In his writing, Iacoboni notes that“social psychology studies have demonstrated that imitation and mimicry are pervasive, automatic, and facilitate empathy.” In the same way, acts of joining and shared movement also help to foster empathy. In conversation about Emergent Improvisation and The Son-Rise Program, I like to define empathy as an intelligence and sensibility. One that allows us to experience a sense of relatedness and to cultivate the capacity for understanding. It also requires us to recognize and respond to the sophisticated emotional and kinesthetic influences of our partners. Empathy does not imply that we share the same emotions, thought patterns or even physicality, but that we are able to create meaningful parallels based on our own histories and experiences. I am particularly fond of the word parallel here. It was once explained to me, by an autistic child that I was working with, that in projective geometry parallel lines will always and inevitably intersect, somewhere at the line of infinity. This moment of intersection is precisely where we find each other through acts of joining and shared movement.
I was also intrigued by The Son-Rise Program's pedagogy. They do not use the traditional curriculums associated with autism therapy. Instead, the creators of The Son-Rise Program have designed a curriculum called the “social developmental model.” This curriculum outlines goals and provides guidelines for targeting challenges related to socialization. However, the content for that curriculum is unique to each individual child they work with. Like an improvisational dance unfolding among an ensemble, the content emerges from and is shaped by the interests and motivations of the child. This is yet another way in which my work and research in dance and autism converge. For me, improvising in the dance studio is no different from working with a child in their playroom. Both practices are about cultivating connections, building relationships, and creating together.
Now, a decade later— in the midst of a global pandemic, a social and political uprising, a continuously ignored climate crisis, and the list goes on... I am trying to harmonize what I’ve witnessed and experienced about improvisation in hopes of deciphering how we might utilize the principles and frameworks embedded in improvisational practices to better engage creative problem-solving strategies across the arts and autism, as well as within a broader range of contexts and systems of knowledge. I have always approached my work in improvisation as an interdisciplinary, transformational practice— one that weaves art-making with critical inquiry and values dialogue with a diverse range of folks and networks. Still, I want to expand the scope of my practice to explore creative solutions that support a wider range of communities seeking social, political, or other forms of systemic change.
In many ways, this transitional phase feels like a practice in rehoming my work. Like most people in the thick of sheltering at home, my work has slowly come to a halt. Some projects adapted, found their natural end, or were postponed and put on hold, while others will no longer come to fruition. This is the hardest piece for me— having to contend with and let go of what is no longer going to become. Because of this, I’m spending a lot of time in reflection: noticing, listening, and witnessing. I continue to practice embracing the unknown, yielding to change, and welcoming opportunities for growth. I am writing, meditating, and sifting through ideas and materials as I grapple with a future that continues to look mysterious.
I know that I have the capacity to harness the new space, time, and opportunities emerging from the absence of these projects. I also know that if I’m going to seize this moment with any real power I have to allow myself to mourn what’s lost— to embrace the funeral dances knocking on my door and use the lingering trauma as a pathway to healing and transformative action. I'm practicing how to attend to this transitional time with the same care that I give to reorganizing my belongings. This is all still more effortlessly said than done, and the business of rehoming my work does not feel like a simple exercise in working from home, but a lesson in learning how to bring my work into my home. How do I dissolve the lines between work and home, or work and life? I believe that this moment is inviting all of us to explore this question. To recast old ideas, thoughts, and beliefs, to attend to our lives as we would an improvisational dance, to compose with the unknown and build with the emerging.
Perhaps there are ways of joining each other and collaborating that transcend the customary modes of connecting and communicating that we are used to. As a community, let's take this opportunity to conjure new beginnings and work in new formats. How do we hold space for ourselves and for one another? What do we want to create and how do we want to shape these transformative moments? In my experience, the evolution of new ideas emerge and flourish in the spaces where multiple fields of study overlap— spaces where we are engaged in collaborative thinking, supporting and uplifting one another in the spirit of community. Spaces that ask challenging questions and make room for tough conversations, that cultivate resilience and allow for adaptation, and that prioritize echoing what we know is serving us rather than mending the unsustainable.
I hope we meet in those spaces.
film stills by Greg Murtha