Maria Troiani Howard is a community inclusive arts activist who does not give up.
In 2010, a screening of A New Kind of Listening at the Chatham Film Festival, followed by a community forum, was a catalyst for the Inclusive Arts Initiative in Siler City, NC.
Maria had seen the original theater piece, “The Song that Greens the Earth”, as well as the film, and was inspired to join the Inclusive Arts Initiative leading a dance improv group. Unfortunately, shortly after their first anniversary celebration, this wonderful community inclusive arts program had to close due to lack of financial support and volunteer help.
Maria tried to continue the inclusive dance improv group at both the sheltered workshop and the local high school, but neither venue was working out. In the summer of 2013, Maria found a community partner in Allison Gaither, who was opening the Siler City Dance and Gymnastics Academy .(www.silercitydance.com). Allison agreed with Maria that a diverse and inclusive dance improv class would be a valuable addition to the dance school.
Maria added a visual arts component to the classes, and the Inclusive Arts and Dance Improv Group was born. A crucial element that allows adults with disabilities to pay the tuition, and thus to pay their teacher, is an allowance that residents of North Carolina who receive CAP (Community Alternatives, a Medicaid home and community-based services program which has different names in different states) can use to attend classes in the community. Maria was alerted to the existence of this allowance by a service coordinator (case-manager). A question I have now is whether the original Siler City Inclusive Arts Initiative could have utilized these funds if they had known about them. (B&W photo above by Janet M. Aiken Photography)
In May of 2014, the group performed their original dance piece “Turn the World Around” (song by Harry Belafonte), with choreography co-created by the dancers, and costumes and sets created by the artists, at the dance studio’s first recital showcase. In the online NC arts journal www. CVNC.org, reviewer Andrea McKerlie Luke wrote of the performance: “…the gem in the academy’s crown was its integrity, showcased by the performance of the Inclusive Art and Dance Improv class… who were so united in their energetic movements that it was easy to forget about their ‘diffabilities’.” (used by permission of Andrea McKerlie Luke)
Maria & her son Matthew had explored a variety of movement and art classes and workshops during the years Matthew was homeschooled. Michelle Pearson of Dance Exchange demonstrated for her the richness and depth that could emerge from a diverse group of people, even those trying out dance for the first time. Maria was inspired by these experiences to participate in a state-wide “teach the teachers” training, sponsored by the North Carolina State Arts Council, for dancers offering classes for students/artists with disabilities. She then began searching for a way to share her skills.
Here is how Maria Troiani-Howard describes the vision, philosophy and process of the Inclusive Arts and Dance Improv group’s work:
“As a teaching artist, my work is to support individuals of differing abilities, backgrounds and training to become collaborators and co-creators of dance and artwork. The performance piece emerges from a theme, but is self-created authentically from the artists’ life experiences.
In my role as an inclusive arts facilitator, I guide the dancers/artists on a theme, and we talk about how it has meaning for them. I help stimulate their ideas, and ask them to create dance moves, paint and sculpt. The visual art supports the dance art, and vice-versa, using the art as props and scenery, and designing the costumes. I creatively embellish and integrate their ideas and moves to add cohesion to the choreography. At the same time, I am modeling this process for the artists, as they learn to expand on each others’ artistic work and co-create as a community of artists.”
What the group has experienced through this process time and again, is that when people of mixed abilities, different ages, and varying cultural backgrounds come together, the artful dance co-created by such diverse people is robust, rich, soul-stirring, intriguing art that profoundly moves the audience. The group’s members are moved, too—and that becomes their passion, and their reason for continuing to work creatively together.
Different expressive ways of moving the body happen when people with different body types are included in the process— people using wheelchairs, people who are blind, people who have CP—all kinds of people. The diversity of people is what broadens the depth and beauty of the dance performances that are co-created.
Another important facet of the Inclusive Arts and Dance Improv Group is sharing their performances and art with the community, which moves others to expand their ideas and perceptions of the human experience. The group participates in the broader arts community, displaying art at the Siler City Art Walks, and at the NC Arts Incubator. They are creating visual art and dance pieces with guest artists and story dancers. The original program has also inspired a dance/Nia class for students with disabilities in the local high school, and a new inclusive library program.
Maria is very clear that the focus needs to be on the artful outcomes of the group, not on her as an individual:
“I am not ‘teaching’ my students art or dance. I strive to empower each one to open and broaden their own unique ability to create art, to create a dance. As an Inclusive Dance Teaching Artist, their art IS my art.”
The following video of the Inclusive Dance and Art Improv Group is copyrighted and used by permission of Michelle Pinto Videography and Photography: