Inclusive Art and Dance Improv Group

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.

image 3Maria 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 .( 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., 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)

imageMaria & 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:


Shortbus Studio: Making It Cool

Shortbus logo

Arts, Disability and Adventure

As a longtime advocate for community inclusion, nothing could sound less cool to me than a sheltered workshop—you know, where people with disabilities are segregated and confined in one space all day, sitting at tables doing repetitive piece work for which they are paid very little.

But in Burnsville, NC, the Shortbus Studio folks have transformed an isolating, boring, limiting sheltered workshop into an “intuitive art and outdoor adventure program”, as described by its intrepid leader, Cassandra Styles.

At Shortbus Studio, artists/participants create art and crafts, volunteer in the community, do challenging sports, and just generally have a whole lot of fun.

So my question for y’all is this: why can’t every sheltered workshop turn into a place where the arts, community engagement, and adventure are primary elements?

Looking to the Shortbus Studio experience as an inspiration and model, I believe they can.

Some history: in 2008, Yancey Residential Services took over management of the “Mountain Opportunity Center” sheltered workshop. Cassandra Styles, who was very involved in the design and construction an innovative, award-winning group home for that agency– Hawthorne House– was asked to lead an effort to enrich and update the day program.

The program participants and staff decided to focus on the arts and adventure, one person saying he wanted to finally “make the short bus cool”–and that was the name of their art gallery and store. They then painted all the walls of their building bright (very bright) colors, and started trying out any and every activity they could think of, like regular massages and eating sushi. And they were off and hiking!

What I admire most is how Cassandra and her team (including staff and artists)  find ways to use adventures, volunteering and the arts to build collaborations and everyday relationships. People in the larger community come to see for themselves that individuals with disabilities are much more alike than different from them.

Clay ArtistOne great example of this was the idea to offer much-needed space to the Western North Carolina Quilt Trails Project  along with design board prep support, so that quilt project designers and artists naturally work alongside Shortbus Studio artists and get to know each other.

Through this contract, Shortbus earns a little extra money for art supplies and other expenses, as they do with their colorful gallery/gift shop, where greeting cards and t-shirts with original, quirky art and quotes are for sale.

Another way Shortbus Studio artists hone their skills while engaging with the area’s active and dynamic arts community is through the Toe River Arts Council. Taking part in 4-week class sessions 3 times a year, they explore new techniques in ceramics, found and recycled art and sculpture, and much more.

Here it is—-the videos:

One of the best creative projects they do is making short videos, which can be viewed on the Shortbus Studio YouTube channel . Cassandra Styles and staff member Seth Johnson worked together with a team of staff, Shortbus artists, and friends to create, shoot and edit short videos in 4 hours flat – all while having a great time: an amazing accomplishment in my book! 

What could be cooler than going out in the community, acting silly or serious, making music and creating dialogue, having fun and ending up with a video that can be enjoyed by everyone?

My favorite is Shortbus Studio’s Home Sweet Home. and I also recommend Courage to Love  and Shortbus Studio’s Flash Animation .

Siberian BearcubsCool volunteer projects Shortbus Studio artists do include: working in a community garden that feeds hungry people; making chew toys for the animal shelter, (once doing hands-on care of rescued Siberian bear cubs for a zoo–see left),  turtle rescue, river and beach clean-up, MANNA food bank, raising funds for the Red Cross and others, shelving books in school libraries, and serving as Big Sisters/Big Brothers to young residents of nursing homes.

Living out their motto , “Get out and play!,  Shortbus Studio artists go on weekly  mountain hikes, ride horses, go whitewater rafting, zip lining, kayaking and anything else they can think of that’s adventuresome and fun.


Shortbus Studio Whitewater RaftingThe Shortbus Studio example brings up several questions for me that have multiple complicating side-issues .  I plan to address these in follow-up posts:

How could this model be duplicated? What are the essential factors for such a transformation–from sheltered workshop to arts, community engagement and outdoor adventure program—to occur in our state and in the U.S.? Cassandra Styles may be presenting at this year’s TASH Conference—stay tuned!

What will be the effect of the new Home and Community-Based Services (HCBS) regulations from the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services? Instituted this year, these regs significantly increase the range of community options and access to the community that must be offered to individuals served, in order for the service provider to be reimbursed by Medicaid.

And what about the highest ideals of inclusion activists–that individuals with disabilities should not live in group homes,  go out into the community in groups, or attend segregated day programs?  How do those ideals fit with the reality that there are many, many individuals  who need and want the support of a supervised residence/program?  There are also many adults with disabilities who are living with their families or in their own staffed apartments or homes who don’t have the opportunity to express themselves creatively and are not engaged in the community. These people may feel  isolated and lonely, and may not have the opportunity to make meaningful contributions to society.

These questions don’t have definitive answers, for sure, but they are certainly worth pursuing.

Meanwhile, please do check out Shortbus Studio’s Facebook page—it’s way cool….


Inclusive Arts in Siler City, NC

See a short video about “The Search for the Artist Within”, an inclusive arts initiative in Siler City, North Carolina.  Artists Rahkie Mateen and Roger Person share about their inclusive arts workshop at the Wingnut Gallery and how the Inclusive Arts Campaign associated with A New Kind of Listening inspired their project

Watch the Video on YouTube