Her dancing is a step toward reaching disabled

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Joanne Lewis-Margolius wants to dance deep into the darkness and touch the children living there. She's doing that now, moving her hands toward a 12-year-old boy who can't see.

The boy's name is Ken. A moment ago, he seemed anxious. He was shaking his head and arms aggressively, twisting his neck, sitting, then lying, then standing on the floor mat in a gym at the Maryland School for the Blind.

Now, charmed by the dancer's gentle touch, he is still. He seems to be "listening" to the touch, feeling the emotions traveling up his arm from his fingertips. Without words, Ms. Margolius tells him a story.

This evening, the story is that of Anne Frank, which presents, in Ms. Margolius' interpretation, a chain reaction of emotions -- joy, loss, fear, terror, peace.

Ms. Margolius is 28. She wears a colorful, satiny skirt that appears oddly ragged, adorned with three yellow Stars of David. She wears makeup that is really a face painting of birds flying through large white clouds across a blue sky. She dances to haunting New Age music. She kneels. She touches. She moves gracefully throughout her audience, a small group of physically and, in some cases, mentally disabled students.

This is drama through Margolius' Magical Experiences Arts Company (MEAC), where "touching the audience" is more than a figure of speech. The company is dedicated to enriching the lives of mentally and physically disabled children. Ms. Margolius founded MEAC in 1986, when she was but 19, and performed in Europe and Israel before moving to Baltimore with her husband 14 months ago.

She approached 10 area organizations about using MEAC. The Maryland School for the Blind was the first to accept.

Now, using the story of Anne Frank as a framework, the performers act out a series of emotions through a combination of touch, dance and mime. This, according to Ms. Margolius, allows the children to experience drama on a level that, because of their disabilities, would be otherwise unreachable.

"As a disabled person, you can get very angry and frustrated because no one else can relate to you," Ms. Margolius says.

Thus, in order to connect with the disabled, the actors cannot merely display emotion as stage performers usually do. When Ms. Margolius, as Anne Frank, feels persecuted and alone, she rushes to the audience -- she prefers to call them "participants" -- drops to her knees, and fully embraces each individual, crying silently on their shoulders.

MEAC's work is founded on this intense and intimate style of interaction. The touching, although always gentle, graduates to full body hugging and embracing.

"Some disabled people are so scared of touch," Ms. Margolius says. "They've never been exposed to it because so few educators actually touch their handicapped students."

Early in the play, Ms. Margolius performs a lengthy solo dance ritual -- she lights a candle, she blindfolds herself, she looks up to heaven and silently screams "Why?" as she clutches bright yellow Stars of David. She and others in the troupe dance with precision and grace, as if a critical audience is watching their every move.

Why such an extensive visual performance? Most of these children can't see. And why a dance based on a complex and sad story -- Anne Frank, a young Jewish girl hiding from the Nazis -- handicapped children can't possibly understand?

"We really believe that they can feel the emotion I'm going through as Anne Frank," says Ms. Margolius. "We believe that MEAC works on a spiritual level as well, where we communicate subconsciously with the children. People who work with these disabilities also say the handicapped have a sixth sense . . . a different way of hearing and seeing. I don't know what it is, but a deaf child will come up to me and say, 'That music really scared me.' "

Ms. Margolius calls her play "The Secret Annexe," based on Anne Frank's diary.

"You can't just walk into a room and throw a set of emotions at these participants without giving a story line," she says. "The Holocaust provides us with a framework . . . so what the children see is someone who feels persecuted and unequal. Afterwards, they feel they have helped that person."

The audience reaction confirms that this brand of drama therapy is effective.

"When we first worked with Ken, he refused to be touched," Ms. Margolius says. "He was letting out these cries of pain, hiding in the corner all huddled up. . . . He was terrified."

But this is Ken's fourth session with MEAC, and after one minute of physical interaction with dancer- volunteer Karen Blackmon, the boy wears a smile bigger than his face. He squeals with joy and throughout the next hour of dancing, hugging, and feeling, his unbridled laughter fills the room.

Now Ms. Margolius, as Anne, moves toward Tiffany, who is a young teen and autistic.

Tiffany giggles nervously while Ms. Margolius' hands move like those of a sculptor molding clay. They glide smoothly up and down the girl's arms, changing directions with quick and precise flicks of the wrist.

Tiffany's eyes open wide. Her jaw drops and her head tilts to the side as she stares at the face before her. The corners of her mouth start to turn up, then she looks back down.

"What are you doing?" she asks quietly, a smile forming once again.

Ms. Margolius replies with an even wider smile. She touches Tiffany's cheek and moves like a ballerina to the next set of closed eyes.

These belong to Jason, who has Down syndrome and is blind. A side effect of his condition is constant tension; he sways his head from side to side angrily, while sometimes shouting profanities.

But during the show, especially while he is being physically comforted, he is able to smile, lean back and relax.

Norene Hinson, a recreation specialist for the school, says the MEAC program is so popular among students that that she has a waiting list.

While discussing the origins of MEAC in her Northeast Baltimore home, Ms. Margolius shows only a trace of the mild speech impediment she had as a child.

"My father was an artist who encouraged me to draw," she says in a distinct British accent, "and I started to feel more comfortable with that kind of communication rather than language. We were speaking, but rather than using words we were using drawings."

Growing up in London in a Jewish family, she often felt she was different than other children her age, as if she had a handicap.

"The children would come and say, 'Are you an alien, because my parents say that you're different because you're a Jew?' "

She points to these experiences when explaining her desire to found MEAC as a new form of "healing through art." Drama therapy was an established practice in England when Ms. Margolius was a teen-ager, but after being with various drama therapy companies she wanted to develop a different approach to working with the disabled.

"Most groups try to normalize the handicapped," she says. "They say, 'If you're handicapped, let's try to bring you into our society and make you 'normal.' And I thought, no, that's not beneficial to them. It's better to say, 'Yes, you are different, let's find a way in which to give you fulfillment in your life as someone who is different.' "

In Ms. Margolius' eyes, the key to such fulfillment is the exploration of different emotions. A large part of "The Secret Annexe" is devoted to exploring fear and persecution through Anne's personal agony.

Dark, haunting music plays as Anne realizes that she cannot indulge in life's basic pleasures. She cries out in anguish as the music reaches a climax. She reaches out to every student, taking time to hold each one close as she buries her sobbing face in their necks.

"One of our first mottoes was 'Face your fears,' " Ms. Margolius says. "So many have a fear of contact because of being disabled; we beg them to look at those feelings, to realize they can get over their own fears."

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