|The following is a newsletter I wrote for VSA FL artist members. Besides being a great freelance gig, this VSA newsletter gives me the excuse to go out and meet interesting artists with disabilities across Florida|
Apropos, Winter 2013
Conversation, at it's best, is a kind of dance or musical score. I have interviewed many disabled artists, thinkers and doers in the past-but I always felt bound to hurriedly scribbling down their ideas in my notebook. As a low vision writer/reporter, it never occurred to me to really use technology to accommodate myself-even though I was an assistive tech counselor in previous jobs! So this time, when I sat down to talk with two performers who also have disabilities, I used a recording app on my digital tablet and speech-to-text features, so that I could keep my hands free and listen with my whole body. I hope a little bit of the dance in our conversations comes through in these Q & A's.
Paul E. Gavin
Paul is a 21-year-old percussionist, composer and student at the University of South Florida's jazz studies program. He also gives lessons to aspiring young musicians. This summer, he won the VSA International Young Soloist competition, which took him to Washington D.C. where he performed at the John. F Kennedy Center for the Arts. He also traveled to France on a school trip recently and got to experience experimental music at live festivals.
Q: How did you get into jazz at such a young age? You won a contest for VSA playing the marimbas when you were 15. Jazz seems like a genre that appeals more to older folks.
A: I actually felt like jazz was one of the cooler offerings when I was a kid in school. Classical music-you have to do it a certain way, but you can experiment with jazz more like the way you can with the music people my age usually listen to. My mom was also always listening to smooth jazz and my friends were like, "Ugh, that's boring. There's no cord changes." but I liked it. Technically, I'm studying jazz, but I want to play the drums within a lot of other genres.You should love music because it makes you feel good, not because there's a type that you think you should be listening to.
Q: Your internet presence is really impressive, your self-marketing. Can you tell me more about that?
A: Yeah, I built my website myself, used a simple Wordpress blog platform. I've had a website going since I was in high school. I've been really interested in the business side of my music. It seems like musicians are a little distracted, in that they don't think of the practical part of their career. You know, you have to get it to the people somehow.
Q: So, does that mean you are taking business classes at USF in addition to a music degree?
A: No, I feel like the focus of business classes would go in a different direction than I am interested in, so I just try to emulate other artists' business models. And, anything I do, I try to do it myself. I like to set up my own mics and cameras at shows or during studio recordings.
Q: Oh, going back to your website, I read about your trip to Europe on your blog. What was your favorite part of that trip?
A: The last night of the Jazz au Vienne in France-my classmates and I weren't playing there, we were just there to listen. I slept really late that day, because it was an all-night festival and I wanted to stay up. I got to hear this band I really love, called Snarky Puppy. They're influenced, by Brazilian music, funk, R&B and their audience is really varied. If you are like, a cerebral listener, a music professor, you'd be impressed by them. And, they have really cool licks that make the regular listener feel good.That's where it's at for me-if you can reach regular people with your music, but still play it at a level that you feel is artistically fulfilling.
Q: Tell me about your latest project.
A:It's a troupe I just started. It has a French horn, two trumpets, a trombone, me on the drums and a sousaphone player. We primarily play music that I have arranged for the group, We're called Drum N' Brass. The idea is to play in middle schools, to inspire kids to go on to high school and study music. We will also be playing gigs out. All of our venues are kid-friendly. I don't perform in bars or alcohol-centric places because I am Christian. That also allows kids of any age to come to my shows.
Q: Does that value make it hard to find gigs?
A: Yeah, I think it will be difficult. But God is my primary focus, so I'll find a way to do it one way or another.
Q: I know you teach kids privately, but what does it mean on your website when it says you write for Sickles High School?
A: I write arrangements for their marching band.
Q: And is that like writing in a language?
A: Yeah, it's exactly like that. I have some musical phrases that I tend to use over and over again, because I think they sound really good. I work off the scores that the wind players will be playing and then I try to write scores that will challenge my marching band students, even if there's phrases in there I tend to use again and again. I listen to the wind scores until the music starts talking to me-it's a lot like conversation.
Feel the groove with Paul in this video as he performs at the Kennedy Center as a VSA Young Soloist. Be sure to click on his sites below so you can catch an upcoming Drum N' Brass gig.
A military veteran and a wheelchair rugby player, Dwayne founded REVolutions Dance Inc... This troupe creates dance experiences for all abilities and offers diversity education at local schools. He is currently getting his degree in Special Education at the University of South Florida. Dwayne was recently named Lightning Community Hero and awarded several thousand dollars by the Tampa Bay Lightning to re-gift to local nonprofits. He gave a portion of this money to VSA Florida and we really thank him!
Q: What's not surprising to me is that you are a paralyzed dancer who uses a wheelchair. What IS surprising is that you are a competitive athlete and you were in the Navy for 8 years-then you became a dancer. Can you explain that transformation?
A: [Laughing] I think it is just about having an open mind. I mean, I had just moved here to FL from Buffalo, New York, because getting around in a wheelchair in the snow had gotten old. I was getting a routine check up at the VA hospital and I saw a flyer, just a handwritten note really, for wheelchair users to do drama and dance with this musical theater group. Now, I was playing wheelchair sports in the summer-track, field, basketball, and now rugby, but I was really looking for a winter sport, so I thought--Why not? When I called the person on the flyer I found out she was from New York, she had also moved to FL and she just happened to see a dance troupe with wheelchair users called Dancing Wheels. They had come to FL from Cleveland to do a show and after that, she decided she really wanted to work with dancers in chairs. But our schedules didn't match, so I forgot about it for a year, traveled around competing in sports-and then, a year later, she called me and said that Disney World had found out about her project and she absolutely needed wheelchair dancers to do a show there. So, we worked it out. We had to perform in November and I started rehearsing with her in September! It went really well at Disney, so I got some of my other wheelchair-user friends to join and we planned a performance for March and started doing classes in schools.
Q: But you didn't have any dance background?
A: No, we just connected with local choreographers and as the years went by, I learned the difference between jazz, ballet, modern, all that stuff. And when I was working with this musical theater/mixed ability company, I started dating one of the dancers, Amy. And, I met and studied with Axis Dance from California, a physically integrated dance troupe with dancers who have various types of disabilities. They had come down to perform in Miami. I basically really started to find myself as a dancer, so Amy and I decided to start our own troupe, REVolutions Dance.
Q: I am a poet, because as a kid, growing up with rheumatoid arthritis, I felt like poetry was as close as I could come to dance-there was nothing like REVolutions around. How do disabled adults now, who may not have any dance experience, get involved with you?
A: Well, we didn't offer those classes in the last few years, because I wanted to have something really solid to offer disabled adult students. We would work with dance companies on small projects and our dancers would change all the time, but we weren't as established. And I wanted to have established venues where our students could eventually perform with us. So, we just did our second major performance in October 2013 at Hillsborough Community College with Fuzion Dance from Sarasota and Moving Currents Dance Collective of Tampa. We hope to re-run the show, Synergy', at the Palladium in downtown St. Petersburg. Now, we also have a studio in Oldsmar we are working out of on a regular basis. So, after the holiday season, adult classes with us will start.
Q: In my experience, when I've experimented with mixed ability dance troupes, it felt very inclusive, but I also felt a little stranded on a technical level. There were ways I felt like it just couldn't work for my body. Often, the best disabled dancers-sure, they use wheelchairs, but that means they can go really fast and maybe they even have powerful upper bodies that allow them to flip, like yourself. Or, there are dancers with amputations, but they are very acrobatic. For me-I am tiny, blind in one eye, and I move very stiffly, slowly. It makes it harder to be inventive and harder to take risks. Disabled dancers who have absolutely no movement, who are completely paralyzed and use electric chairs can still take risks because they are not going to get knocked over and they can keep up the pace by zooming around. So, what would you say about doing choreography for every kind of body?
A: Well, I believe in teaching technique, even if the bodies involved cannot do a lot of the specific movements in those techniques-like swing your leg, leap off the floor, you know. One of my current students, in the Saturday kids' class has cerebral palsy and very little movement in her hands. So, to dance, she likes to get out of her wheelchair and be on the floor, moving on her knees. But I'm still taking her through the technique we are all doing and sooner or later, we're going to come to some place where the choreography works out. I'm a special ed teacher and a job coach, so that helps me figure out how to teach people to use their own movement skills within certain established techniques.
Q: So you worked with other dance companies when you did "Synergy" at HCC-but these were non-disabled troupes?
A: Yeah, I felt like that was the best way to solidify REVolutions, to have growth and promote us. I had Fuzion choreograph a piece for us and one of their dancers danced in it with us and vice versa, I danced in one of theirs and the same with Moving Currents. So, now, we're not thought of as "just, as just that troupe of disabled dancers in Pinellas.
Q: You are making a cultural shift, integrating not just dancers with and without disabilities, but also integrating mix ability dance troupes with more standard troupes. That's powerful, don't you think? In terms of the way people look at disability?
A: Yeah, in a lot of ways, "disability" is just a word. Words don't have power; people give power to them. But in saying that, I still want people to recognize the unique challenges that the art comes out of, how that makes the dance. Like, you know my little student with CP dancing on her knees-that's kind of a hard thing to do and it deserves recognition.
This video on Dwayne's Facebook page is a good example of the subtlety and complexity of wheelchair dance. The spinning wheels of Dwayne's chair are as much a part of the dance vocabulary as his partners bends and dips and Dwayne's eloquent torso. To see other videos and photos, visit the REVolutions pages below and be sure to get in touch with them about the adult classes beginning in 2014.
Creative Clay at 2nd Saturday Art Walks: Every 2nd Saturday of the month, downtown St. Petersburg art galleries open their doors to the community, often with food and music as added entertainment. Creative Clay is an art studio for people with disabilities. Be sure to visit them during your art walk!
Transforming Sexuality-Sex and Relationship for People with Disabilities: These workshops are run via phone or internet by Sexability founder, Rafe Biggs of California. Rafe became a certified life coach after a paralyzing accident. He is an expert and educator on the art of intimacy for people with disabilities. For more info on these ongoing sessions, click the link to his nonprofit above.
Wine and Redefine with Write to Connect: W2C is a body poetics/social arts project run by me, Amber DiPietra. This class is designed in the spirit of Paint Your Heart Out, where you can have a fun night out making art and sipping vino. Starting with the new year, I will be running a creative journaling workshop--with optional wine drinking--in the swanky lounge of my apartment building, which is located in downtown St. Petersburg. The group will move to cafes and bars on nearby Central Ave as the night of writing, dreaming aloud, and making new friends progresses. As a person with a disability, I urge other disabled folks to take my accessible classes and experience new social opportunities. Go toWrite To Connect to find out more.
Connect with VSAFL!
For more information about VSA Florida, please contact Marian Winters at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 813-974-0721. Don't forget to connect and show your support by Liking VSAFL on Facebook www.facebook.com/VSAFlorida.