Her dancing is a step toward reaching disabled

March 15, 1995|By Gilead Light | Gilead Light,Special to The Sun

Joanne Lewis-Margolius wants to dance deep into the darkness and touch the children living there. She's doing that now, moving her hands toward a 12-year-old boy who can't see.

The boy's name is Ken. A moment ago, he seemed anxious. He was shaking his head and arms aggressively, twisting his neck, sitting, then lying, then standing on the floor mat in a gym at the Maryland School for the Blind.

Now, charmed by the dancer's gentle touch, he is still. He seems to be "listening" to the touch, feeling the emotions traveling up his arm from his fingertips. Without words, Ms. Margolius tells him a story.

This evening, the story is that of Anne Frank, which presents, in Ms. Margolius' interpretation, a chain reaction of emotions -- joy, loss, fear, terror, peace.

Ms. Margolius is 28. She wears a colorful, satiny skirt that appears oddly ragged, adorned with three yellow Stars of David. She wears makeup that is really a face painting of birds flying through large white clouds across a blue sky. She dances to haunting New Age music. She kneels. She touches. She moves gracefully throughout her audience, a small group of physically and, in some cases, mentally disabled students.

This is drama through Margolius' Magical Experiences Arts Company (MEAC), where "touching the audience" is more than a figure of speech. The company is dedicated to enriching the lives of mentally and physically disabled children. Ms. Margolius founded MEAC in 1986, when she was but 19, and performed in Europe and Israel before moving to Baltimore with her husband 14 months ago.

She approached 10 area organizations about using MEAC. The Maryland School for the Blind was the first to accept.

Now, using the story of Anne Frank as a framework, the performers act out a series of emotions through a combination of touch, dance and mime. This, according to Ms. Margolius, allows the children to experience drama on a level that, because of their disabilities, would be otherwise unreachable.

"As a disabled person, you can get very angry and frustrated because no one else can relate to you," Ms. Margolius says.

Thus, in order to connect with the disabled, the actors cannot merely display emotion as stage performers usually do. When Ms. Margolius, as Anne Frank, feels persecuted and alone, she rushes to the audience -- she prefers to call them "participants" -- drops to her knees, and fully embraces each individual, crying silently on their shoulders.

MEAC's work is founded on this intense and intimate style of interaction. The touching, although always gentle, graduates to full body hugging and embracing.

"Some disabled people are so scared of touch," Ms. Margolius says. "They've never been exposed to it because so few educators actually touch their handicapped students."

Early in the play, Ms. Margolius performs a lengthy solo dance ritual -- she lights a candle, she blindfolds herself, she looks up to heaven and silently screams "Why?" as she clutches bright yellow Stars of David. She and others in the troupe dance with precision and grace, as if a critical audience is watching their every move.

Why such an extensive visual performance? Most of these children can't see. And why a dance based on a complex and sad story -- Anne Frank, a young Jewish girl hiding from the Nazis -- handicapped children can't possibly understand?

"We really believe that they can feel the emotion I'm going through as Anne Frank," says Ms. Margolius. "We believe that MEAC works on a spiritual level as well, where we communicate subconsciously with the children. People who work with these disabilities also say the handicapped have a sixth sense . . . a different way of hearing and seeing. I don't know what it is, but a deaf child will come up to me and say, 'That music really scared me.' "

Ms. Margolius calls her play "The Secret Annexe," based on Anne Frank's diary.

"You can't just walk into a room and throw a set of emotions at these participants without giving a story line," she says. "The Holocaust provides us with a framework . . . so what the children see is someone who feels persecuted and unequal. Afterwards, they feel they have helped that person."

The audience reaction confirms that this brand of drama therapy is effective.

"When we first worked with Ken, he refused to be touched," Ms. Margolius says. "He was letting out these cries of pain, hiding in the corner all huddled up. . . . He was terrified."

But this is Ken's fourth session with MEAC, and after one minute of physical interaction with dancer- volunteer Karen Blackmon, the boy wears a smile bigger than his face. He squeals with joy and throughout the next hour of dancing, hugging, and feeling, his unbridled laughter fills the room.

Now Ms. Margolius, as Anne, moves toward Tiffany, who is a young teen and autistic.

Tiffany giggles nervously while Ms. Margolius' hands move like those of a sculptor molding clay. They glide smoothly up and down the girl's arms, changing directions with quick and precise flicks of the wrist.

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