At Home On The Dance Floor: Open Floor for the Homeless
Reviewed By: Lynn Fleischman
Language availability: English
As well as being an Open Floor teacher, Lynn is also a longtime teaching artist and the Education Director of The Drawing Studio, a non-profit community arts organisation with several outreach programs for underserved populations.
It’s a Wednesday morning at the Primavera Emergency Men’s Shelter in Tucson, Arizona (USA) and a dozen homeless men are sitting in a circle, waiting to begin ArtMoves, an embodied movement and visual art class.
“Although that’s not what they think they’re going to do,” says Open Floor teacher Lynn Fleischman, with a grin as we meet on Skype to chat about the outreach program she runs with her ArtMoves Co-Founder Pat Dolan (also a longtime teaching artist and founder of The Drawing Studio’s Outreach Arts Teaching for Seniors), “If we told them they were gonna dance and draw, they’d probably run a mile!” she laughs. “So the case managers tell them it’s a “meeting” and they show up expecting a group therapy kind of thing…”
For the next 75 minutes the men move their bodies to upbeat, funky tunes and draw under the guidance and instruction of the two teaching artists. By the end of the session, some of them come up to Lynn and Pat and sheepishly share how much they enjoyed themselves.
I’m fascinated and ask her how they get such a potentially resistant group to move. She explains that many of these men suffer with mental and physical health issues and all of them are dealing with trauma in one form or another. “They’re coming off the streets so safety and anonymity is really important for them,” she says. She explains that using a circle of chairs for the movement part of the session works particularly well. The circle helps to contain the group and the chairs “literally have their backs…so no-body can sneak up from behind.”
She tells me that most of them are very shut down so they have to ease in slowly. The sessions start with a body scan and some gentle stretching and then each participant introduces themselves by name and creates a gesture, so each person’s identity is connected to a specific repetitive movement. I ask her how that goes down. Lynn tells me how for some it can be challenging, “so we are looking for the tiniest, little movement…if they just shake their head and say “pass”, for example, we take that and amplify it a little bit…both gently teasing and affirming them. It works, we’ll get a smile or a laugh and often, if they pass on the first round, they’ll join in on the one after.” For others, it’s much easier, she says, they might get up from the chairs spontaneously and start dancing in the circle and the others will move with more energy in response. “It helps them connect to themselves and each other,” she adds.
Lynn talks about one particularly powerful breakthrough session where they asked the men to make a repetitive movement they had used in a job they had done in the past. “They really got into it,” she says, “here was something they knew how to do…and it was an acknowledgement that they had had a productive role in society. There was pride in showing others and telling what it was. Then in the art part of the session we got them to draw tools and that gave them stories to tell about who they were. When you can create a movement that’s all yours and a drawing that’s unlike anybody else’s, that’s an expression of self agency. This experience can then transfer to other realms in their lives.”
“They are so used to being anonymous and hidden. We are encouraging them to be a part of something, a small group…and eventually society in the wider sense.”
I ask Lynn what their plans are for the future. “Pat and I are writing a curriculum so that we can train others do this work,” she says enthusiastically. “We’re drawing on our long years of teaching art to people of all ages and walks of life at The Drawing Studio, my Open Floor training, Pat’s training as a social worker, and our outreach facilitator training with Bay Area (San Francisco, CA, USA) movement teacher Sylvie Minot.” She continues, “There’s a growing interest in taking this work out to more people. And as always with these non-profit projects, we’re doing most of the fundraising ourselves. But we’re artists and used to making something out of thin air!”
Lynn teaches Open Floor classes on Tuesday evenings in Tucson, Arizona.
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