Emily Birzak, 9, came to the first Liz Lerman Dance Exchange workshop attached to her mother. Each a brown-haired, pony-tailed echo of the other, they paired off together for the first exercise.
It was simple: walking around with a partner, one with eyes open, the other with eyes closed. Communication was by touch and trust: By gentle pressure of a hand, a nudge from a shoulder, a slight push from a hip, the one who could see guided the direction and pace of the one who couldn't.
Then things went a step further. Whenever the time was right, the leader indicated a halt, and roles were reversed. The partner opened his or her eyes, found someone new with closed eyes and took charge.
Soon enough, Emily detached from her mother and put herself in the hands of complete strangers. Within a few minutes, the strangeness wore off. In the public performance, less than a week later, Emily flung herself into the arms of Carol Hayes-Gegner and gave her a hug "like falling into a feather pillow."
The process of awakening the dancer within is second nature to the Dance Exchange, which organized these workshops as part of last month's Columbia Festival of the Arts. Most of the 30-odd participants were not as initially shy as Emily. But by week's end, they had bared their souls as well as their feet in an exploratory process unique to the company.
The Dance Exchange, now 20 years old and recently resettled in Takoma Park after leaving Washington, operates on the principle that everyone can move and everyone has stories to tell.
Working with community groups on simultaneous tracks of movement and storytelling, the company generates raw material for its repertory -- based on real people and real experiences.
What it accomplishes for the "civilians" is less clear. Is it art? Therapy? Social work? All of the above?
"I don't think we're a crunchy granola company," says Peter DiMuro, the Dance Exchange member who led the Columbia workshops. "We're working with the community, for the community and for the Dance Exchange. We try to create a safe haven [for the community dancers], and then we challenge that."
A dance is born
The company members range from professionally trained dancers in their 20s -- Adrienne Clancy, Gesel Mason and Reginald Ellis Crump -- to dancers of an older generation -- Martha Wittman and Andy Torres, still fit at an age when most of their colleagues are rounding off careers. Judith Jourdin, 72, and Thomas Dwyer, 63, both came late to dance, after participating in Lerman workshops for seniors and retirees.
The latest work of the Dance Exchange is "The Hallelujah Project," a 3-year effort that will develop material in some 10 cities. Columbia is the first. In the fall, the company will begin similar workshops in Tucson, Ariz.; Lewiston, Maine; Pittsburgh; Los Angeles; Burlington, Vt.; and New London, Conn. Other sites are pending.
The company's last extended community-based work was "Shehecheyanu," a word from a Hebrew blessing that thanks God "who has kept us alive." To judge by the wracking soliloquy of racial memory performed by Mason in a piece called "Getting to Hallelujah," which used material from "Shehecheyanu" and laid the groundwork for "Hallelujah," it was a searing piece about grief and survival, anger and acceptance.
It grew out of "The Sustenance Project," an exploration of how people of many backgrounds sustain themselves on the journeys of their lives.
From the title, it's clear that "Hallelujah" is celebratory in nature. It seeks the moments that make survival worthwhile.
Participants were asked questions about turning points in their lives and the "little hallelujahs" of everyday, from the first cup of coffee in the morning to the flowers that grow around the back door.
Working with small groups, members of the Dance Exchange shaped the stories into gestures and movement "cells," which could then be combined into phrases.
Caitlyn Nuger, for instance, a 10-year-old who spoke of the funeral of her grandmother, showed her group the length of her dress, which came to just below the knee; and Mason turned this into a dance motive -- a slice of her hand across her bent leg -- that became one of the themes of the larger work being created. Alissa Zingman, 16, who had just taken her first driving lesson, made a comical picture of slamming on the brakes; and Clancy helped her turn it into a contraction of the whole body: an abrupt gesture of forward momentum forestalled.
Such materials, inflected by the standard artistic processes of repetition, variation and contrast, were the raw material of the initial "Hallelujah" performance, presented June 28 at the Jim Rouse Theater. For the 22 community dancers who stayed the course, it showed how far they had come in less than a week.
Not a cross-section
At the same time, it raised issues of community identity and artistic creation.