Monday, July 27, 2015

Walking Point: A Step into the Unknown

Vets, family members work with a dancer    (photo: Jan Barry)

I was dubious when the organizer of a veterans arts program emailed seeking volunteers to participate in a dance workshop. On the other hand it sounded like fun, if not for my wobbly old knees that generally command assistance from a cane or walking stick.

To my relief, Roman Baca and fellow dancers with the Exit 12 Dance Company warmly welcomed a gaggle of geriatric Vietnam vets into the dance workshop Sunday, a part of the Warwick Summer Arts Festival, held at Arthur Finnegan American Legion Post 1443 in Greenwood Lake, NY. Also on the program were a Combat Paper art show and a Warrior Writers workshop and reading, which is what drew most of the participants.

Our informal, pick up dance troupe also included a 60-ish mother of an Iraq War vet, a 40-ish mother who served with a US Army field hospital in a long-forgotten war in Somalia, and a 30-ish female festooned with tattoos commemorating service as a combat medic in Iraq.

Shuffling into the formation for dance warm up exercises felt like walking point on patrol into unknown territory. Even more so than usual, I had to concentrate on every step, trying to anticipate potential hidden dangers. At my age, losing balance and falling is an always lurking menace—as happened recently to a fellow vet laid up from injuries from a misstep in his own home. 

Baca, a professional dancer who served in the Marines in Iraq, and his dance crew guided us through warm up moves that brought back memories of a suddenly imposed PT drill one humid morning in Vietnam, amid sleepy air crews grumbling about being subjected to jumping jacks, push ups and other strenuous exercises last encountered in basic training.

In this case, however, we were advised not to do any movement that felt uncomfortable. The idea, Baca explained, was to tell memorable personal stories in creative movements.

“They take away your identity in the military,” he said. The idea that came to him, which is the core of the dance company he created after military service, is to reclaim affirmation of yourself and address troubling experiences in creative ways.

A fun way of doing this, he demonstrated, is conveying your first name with arm and hand and body gestures—and then sharing this with a circle of other folks, each adding a creative twist or flair. And then speeding up the action of repeating everyone’s name/moves to make a flowing set of movements.

Creative juices flowing, we were assigned in groups of three to tell a memorable story in our life through dance movements. For me and others with knee or ankle issues, this meant thinking about making moves that were expressive without being disastrous. It was a real life exercise in thinking on your feet.

Later in the afternoon, after the writing workshop and reading to the assembled audience, we presented our dance movement renderings. Writhing arms, legs and bodies conveyed the best we could pent-up emotions from war and uneasy peace.  

It was an exciting melding of writers, artists and dancers addressing hard-to-express events. It was an adventure that, for me, pushed some previously accepted limits, with no injuries. I’d like to do it again.

Since forming the dance company in 2007, Baca and fellow dancers have performed and done workshops with vets and family members in New York City and around the country. As he told a San Francisco journalist earlier this year: “Like many returning veterans, Baca found that the re-entry period to normal civilian life was ‘incredibly difficult. After six months, my girlfriend, who is now my wife (Lisa Fitzgerald, who is also a dancer with Exit 12), sat me down and said, 'You’re not OK. You’re angry, depressed, anxious.’

“She wanted to help me and said, 'If you could do anything in the world, what would you do?’ ‘I said, 'I’ve always wanted to start a dance company.’ So we gave it a shot.”

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