Exploring Our Creative Side; Engaging in Community Arts Brings Unexpected Rewards

Three years ago, Janine Joslin, a savvy business executive, set her sights on becoming a Dazzler, and today is a proud member of the Leawood, Kansas, chapter of community tap-dancing troupes. “I love to dance and perform, and I felt that had been missing from my own life,” she says. After a friend suggested it, Joslin showed up for her first practice ready to go, wearing tights and tap shoes.

Potential Dazzlers must prove they’ve learned the routines before being selected to perform for the public. Luckily, says Joslin, “I’m a quick study,” and soon took her place in this 50-and-up women’s group that likes to routinely Shuffle Off to Buffalo at area retirement facilities, church halls and special events.

Learning the stop-and-go, Broadway-style routines such as Steppin’ Out and Millie is more of a mental challenge than aerobic exercise, comments Joslin. “The main thing is it exercises your brain.”

Performing for appreciative groups is a great feeling, she notes, and helps make the twice-weekly practices worthwhile. Just being around inspiring women has helped Joslin look at aging differently. She’s now applying her business skills to set up her troupe’s first website.

Joslin’s experience proves what many dancers, artists, writers, actors and musicians know: Active, hands-on, group participation in the arts is beneficial on many levels.

National Trend

In a recent study commissioned by the Wallace Foundation, Gifts of the Muse: Reframing the Debate About the Benefits of the Arts, the researchers found that, “People that engage in arts in a group setting develop a sense of community as they exchange favors (such as meeting to learn lines or loaning painting supplies); identify themselves with a cast, music ensemble or choral group; and develop a sense of trust and expectations of reciprocity.”

It also noted, “Through the arts of ethnic traditions—such as classical Indian dance, Jamaican steel drums or Japanese raku ceramics—participants develop and maintain their cultural heritage and  communicate their cultural identity to outsiders.”

Gateway Experiences

Most art disciplines can be experienced at any age. No previous training or ability is required, just a curious spirit and willingness to participate and learn. Fun options range from a painting party, in which participants set up an easel and paint a canvas at Uncork’d Art, in Washington, D.C. (UncorkdArt.com), to African drumming at DrumRise, in Decatur, Georgia (DrumRise.net). “A drumming class is a great way to reduce stress, have fun, relax and reenergize, all at the same time; it has even been shown to positively affect your immune system,” say co-founders Amy Jackson and Colleen Caffrey.

Such activities allow us to dabble and explore amidst the power of a group and maximize the joy of artful endeavors, which many prefer to the cost of individual lessons.

One of the most accessible community arts is choral music, as it requires no special equipment. Singing in a group can also become a community tradition that gathers people of all ages and lifestyles in fellowship and celebration.

Since 1882, singing Handel’s Messiah has become an annual highlight for a Swedish wheat-farming community in South-Central Kansas. For three months before Palm Sunday, 200 farmers, homemakers, college students and business owners from the Lindsborg area gather twice weekly to rehearse the three-hour piece (Bethanylb.edu/Oratorio_History.html).

Becky Anderson, the owner of Lindsborg’s Swedish Country Inn, who has sung for 41 years, points to a particularly thrilling moment during each performance. “There is just this exhilaration as the audience jumps to their feet yelling, ‘Brava, Brava.’ Golly, that’s fun.”

Chicagoans maintain a similar holiday tradition. For 35 years, free Do-It-Yourself Messiah concerts have provided a community-funded uplift (imfChicago.org). Thousands of audience members lend their voices to thrilling performances of this masterpiece, led by a worldclass conductor and soloists and backed by an all-volunteer orchestra of local professionals and amateur musicians.

Storytelling is yet another community performing art that requires no special equipment. The National Storytelling Network (StoryNet.org) advances the art of storytelling through a national conference and local  storytelling guilds. The Lehigh Valley Storytelling Guild, in Pennsylvania, meets once a month at a local coffee house (LVStorytellers.org). Members include professional and amateur storytellers, poets, actors and newcomers that love to practice—or just listen to—this ancient art.

Strong community and cultural identity is forged on other stages, as well. The Community Actors Theatre, in San Diego, California’s, Oak Park, performs many plays written by local playwrights exploring themes in black culture (CommunityActorsTheatre.com).

For Calvin Manson, a local poet and playwright who teaches acting workshops, the nonprofit venue feels like a mom-and-pop outfit. “They have the raw talent that could be developed into something wonderful. People don’t just learn to be actors and playwrights. They learn to work together, to commit to a common struggle. When they leave, they know how to work with people, to be team players.”

Sometimes, a life change can open the door to a creative outlet. As a newly single 30-something, photographer Doug Plummer says that when he fell in with the Seattle contra dance scene in the mid-1980s, “It became my primary social life.” Derived from New England folk dance, two lines of dancers face each other and move to the rhythms of fiddle music.

“Since 2003, anytime I’m in New England, I try to stay over on a Monday and catch the Nelson [New Hampshire] dance,” says Plummer. Likening it to participating in the slowfood and similar local movements, he says, “I feel like I’m entering into a mode of slow-dancing.”

At the weekly Nelson gatherings, “The dancers will drift in; singles, couples and families with kids,” he relates. “Someone puts out the fiddle case for the $2 admission. Whoever volunteered to bring baked goods sets them out. Harvey shows up with his fiddle, sits on the fold-up chair on the stage. Bob sits at the piano. ‘Line up for a contra,’ barks Don, in a clipped, Yankee accent. ‘First dance is Monymusk.’ Then everyone just joins in.”

Auditioning for the Role of a Lifetime

The next level of volunteer arts participation may involve an audition and a greater commitment. At the same time, these pursuits offer prime opportunities to expand artistic skills and join in something bigger than one’s self.

Since 1873, the Cincinnati, Ohio, May Festival has served as a shining example of community showmanship (May Festival.com). Chorus auditions are held in January, rehearsals begin in September and concerts routinely sell out by May.

Music critic Nancy Malitz comments, “It’s that special, tiny sliver of the year when everybody stretches. When hundreds of amateur singers accelerate the tempo by devoting every night to rehearsal and every day to thoughts of the concerts to come… when audiences look their finest, clap their loudest.”

Lawrence Coleman, a chorus member for 15 years, has found that singing and networking with other May Festival vocalists has paid off in surprising ways. “I’ve recorded and had other singing engagements and opportunities, all because I’ve been connected to the chorus and the people in it,” he says.

Coleman also sings with the rhythm and blues gospel group Fo Mo Brothers, performing at area churches and the Midwest Regional Black Family Reunion. Coleman remarks, “I have friends in the chorus from very different walks of life. We come together for the single purpose of making great music. People of differing backgrounds and schools of thought can do more than coexist. It’s confirmed for me that we can learn to celebrate our differences when we have a common goal.”

Even those that don’t feel inherently artistic can find venturing into an art form unexpectedly rewarding. Channeling an inner Elizabeth Bennett or Mr. Darcy is commonplace in Bay Area English Regency Society waltzes and “longways” dances, in Palo Alto, California (baers.org). Alan Winston, a computer systems administrator and veteran dance caller, observes that these patterned dances appeal to math-science-logic-computer types. “It’s a great place for people that live in their heads to get out and be social,” he says.

Appropriately, the dances all feature choreography from Jane Austen’s era. Depending on the theme of the dance—like the sophisticated Cyprians Ball or spirited Return of the Regiments Ball—the ambience may be elegant or rowdy, explains Winston. Dances are taught beforehand to music such as George Washington’s Favourite Cotillion, an 1808 tune performed by musicians playing a clarinet, piano and recorder. Many wear period costumes, while others come in jeans. Winston is usually bedecked in a wine-colored waistcoat with tails that he found on eBay.

Plein air painters forsake the indoors to take their paints, easels and canvases outside. Plein-Air Painters of America regularly paint in groups in the fresh air and then hold an exhibition; annual workshops help teach techniques (p-a-p-a.com). At the recent seventh annual Florida’s Forgotten Coast event, in the state’s Panhandle, billed as America’s Great Plein Air Paint-Out, featured artists set up alongside amateurs eager to learn more (PleinAirfl.com).

Whatever one’s newly discovered or longtime treasure, individuals engaging in a group arts activity forge strong social bonds, keep ethnic arts traditions alive, learn new things in new ways and experience joyous personal growth.

… All while creating something wonderful.

Judith Fertig regularly contributes to Natural Awakenings. She’s an award-winning cookbook author at AlfrescoFoodAndLifestyle.blogspot.com.

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