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Expressive Idaho features master folk artists and apprentices who make their art right here in the Gem State. This series is produced in partnership with the Idaho Commission on the Arts’ Folk and Traditional Arts Program, with funding support from Jennifer Dickey, Andy Huang, Dr. Suzanne Allen, MD and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Modern dancers in Idaho inspired by traditional folk dances

A woman wearing black leggings, a grey t-shirt and black face masks dances in front of a girl wearing a pink dress and biker shorts.
Arlie Sommer
Idaho Commission on the Arts
Dancers not only span in body types, but also in age. “I always take dancers as young as seven, and then our oldest dancer who just joined this season is 81. That multi-generational quality is incredible,” Megan Brandel said.

On the fifth floor of JUMP in downtown Boise, Megan Brandel gathers with her dance group weekly to practice movement and develop a new dance for the coming season. Young and old bodies, and wheelchairs, glide and swirl above the city skyline, circling up and pulling tighter to touch hands.

Brandel calls out encouragement and suggestions to three pulsing circles of dancers.

“Join four shoulders. Remember, there's lots of ways you can do this one too … four shoulders.”

Now in its 16th season, the Open Arms Dance Project was formed by Brandel in 2008, with support from the Boise City Department of Arts and History, to perform at the 2009 Special Olympics World Winter Games held in Idaho.

“We performed and it was just this beautiful experience and I wanted to keep it going. Our mission is to create greater joy and compassion with dance that opens hearts, minds and arms.”
Megan Brandel

The group has gone on to perform at the Morrison Center, Treefort Music Festival and the State Capitol, among other prestigious venues. They’ve expanded to not only include those with and without disabilities, but people of all ages. In 2022, Brandel received the Governor's Award in the Arts for Accessibility in the Arts.

She brings modern dance philosophies to Open Arms, questioning dance standards that value very specific bodies, and expanding on traditional folk dances; she takes notes from many perspectives and art forms and turns dance on its head.

For this new season of performance, the dancers are collaborating to create a new piece that refers to traditional circle dances. Brandel gathers input from each member and then orchestrates the big picture. Before making any movements, the dancers brainstormed and researched traditional dances, bringing them to the group to discuss and integrate ideas.

“I'm kind of in love with circles. Everybody can be seen and acknowledged, and it's so connecting,” said Brandel.

Brandel’s dance journey began with tap. The first in her family to attend college, her parents were impressed she was attending and supported her ongoing dance pursuits. College programs mostly focused on ballet or modern and when forced to choose she went with modern. At first put off by how weird it seemed, she quickly grew to appreciate the philosophy of deconstruction and the creativity the practice allowed. Brandel also adopted the idea from modern dance that dancers need not conform to the rigid body type required by ballet: slender, long legs, a small chest, narrow shoulders, fair skin, and young.

“I always take dancers as young as seven, and then our oldest dancer who just joined this season is 81. That multi-generational quality is incredible,” said Brandel. “I see the older people in the group being so playful and childlike. And then, you know, the younger dancers in the group taking on so much responsibility.”

A woman stands in front of a dark brown bookshelf with books and teacups on it. She is holding one of the teacups and a saucer in her hands, looking at the matching pair.
Arlie Sommer
Idaho Commission on the Arts
“She would send me those invitations and I would get dressed up and we would have tea parties. And so, that is why I have a tea cup collection, which sometimes I say to myself, ‘Oh my gosh, I'm this modern artist and I have all this really floofy, gaudy stuff in here.’ But it has such a meaning to me,” Brandel said.

She draws inspiration for the multigenerational dance project from her childhood. Without many options in rural Nampa, at age five, she befriended an 80-year-old neighbor who had experienced blindness but could see when Brandel met her.

“She would invite me over and we would have tea parties and we'd talk in these British accents and play. She'd usually give me a big peony to take home,” said Brandel.

Later in life, Open Arms dancers experience many of the same benefits of intergenerational connection that she did. She looks back on those eight years of friendship with her neighbor fondly and to this day has a large collection of floral tea sets decorating her home.

Including dancers of all ages and abilities assures that Brandel will continue to be able to dance with Open Arms as her own body changes. Though she doesn’t identify as disabled, she has been diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome and struggles to stay active because of the hypermobility caused by the genetic disorder that affects joints and connective tissue.

There are other dancers with the group who also manage unseen disabilities. Dancer Alice Brown, 15, started with ballet, then hip-hop, and even ventured into cheerleading. But under the surface, she struggles with obsessive-compulsive disorder. She saw Open Arms perform at a local art gallery five years ago and immediately identified with the dancers, asking her mother if she could join the company that same night.

“They were performing there. And I was like, ‘this is so beautiful and awesome’,” said Brown.

Other dancers, like Hava, who uses a wheelchair and whose hands curl near her face, have more visibly different bodies. She has danced with the group since its inception when she was 13.

A child sits in a wheelchair with her hands folded across their chest, getting ready to dance.
Arlie Sommer
Idaho Commission on the Arts
Hava has danced with Open Arms since 2009 when the group came together to perform for the Special Olympics hosted in Idaho.

Many of the dancers who have stayed on with the group for years find a gratifying sense of connection and community. Heather Marie has danced with the group for seven years.

“I just never thought it was a possibility. I also have cerebral palsy, like Hava, and that's why my balance is the way it is,” she said.

To accommodate these differences, Brandel uses what’s called ‘transposing’ to translate dance movement to different bodies.

“...If you're doing it, like a movement with your legs and I can't do it, I might use a different body part that I can move easier,” said Heather Marie. “So for me, a lot of times when I'm doing something with lower body, I'll use my arms to move, or my head.”

“I transpose by wheeling. It's very hard for me because I can't see,” Hava adds.

Each transposition might be unique to the dancer, but the collective group performs in unity with the same energy or quality of movement.

Today, these three dancers, deemed “Dance Ambassadors” by Brandel, stayed after practice to discuss their experience in the company. They speak with ease and confidence about their disabilities and also their dance skills, a testament to the company's success in the Treasure Valley, where they’ve gained recognition from media outlets and experience sharing their stories.

Brandel views the process of transposing to create dances as a collaboration rather than specific instruction from herself as the leader. She asks each person what might work for them and provides ideas and guiding prompts.

The company has a family feel and Brandel creates community during each practice. Dance exercises infuse technique with values of acceptance, empathy and transformation.

“It really was a way for me to be seen. And it wasn't until I came here that I really found a community of dancers and friends because I never had friends growing up. I was severely bullied in school.”
Heather Marie

Brandel incorporated Open Arms Dance Project as a nonprofit organization three years ago and now receives funding from the Idaho Commission on the Arts to educate school children about anti-buullying and social-emotional wellness through dance. They perform their Upstanders dance, with original music from the Afrosonics, to share messages of inclusion at schools. Brandel also incorporated elements of the Grump Meter during the 22-23 season, a tool to help children become aware of the intensity of their emotions. The Upstanders with Open Arms program was developed by Brandel in partnership with the Wassmuth Center for Human Rights.

In addition to her work with Open Arms, Brandel developed solo work during a 2020 residency at Surel’s Place. Her film “Box Me Outside/Outside The Box: A Movement Memoir” explores COVID-19 pandemic themes like masking, caring for children who are at home more and adaptations to a changing society.

She wants to invoke values of civility, community and cooperation and impart these ideas not only on her dancers but to Boise audiences. Brandel reminds dancers that another value of the company is to push yourself beyond what you think you’re capable of – to strive and challenge yourself.

Two groups of people stand in circles with their hands held. Two women facing the camera have their heads touching and their eyes closed.
Arlie Sommer
Idaho Commission on the Arts
Heather Marie [center with a black mask] began dancing with the group in 2016. “It really was a way for me to be seen. And it wasn't until I came here that I really found a community of dancers and friends because I never had friends growing up,” she said.

“And I think that feels good to people, to be in community, to be really creative, and then that ownership in what we're doing.”

The connection between the dancers bolsters each person with confidence and energy to achieve more than others might expect of them and is transforming how Idahoans think about dance and potentially their own capabilities.

“I feel blessed to be in this group because it's given me so much positive out of something that was so negative,” said Heather Marie, who even feels that her own family now treats her differently.

The hard work and dedication are worth it when the results are so dramatic: Idaho audiences are catching up to Brandel as she coaxes them along.

“I see members transform with that and start thinking in different ways and interacting with people in different ways. I think all that translates and audiences can see and feel a difference with what we're doing,” said Brandel.

Some of the music in this story was composed by Jared Arave.

This series is produced in partnership with the Idaho Commission on the Arts’ Folk and Traditional Arts Program, with funding support from Jennifer Dickey and Andy Huang, Dr. Suzanne Allen, MD and the National Endowment for the Arts.

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