Liz Lerman is the founding artistic director of the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange in Takoma Park, Md.
Early in my professional life, I was lucky enough to be an artist in residence at the Children's National Medical Center, better known as Children's Hospital. I would go once a week, along with a piano player, and we would wander the halls, gathering patients, their families, and sometimes the staff, to dance. I was intensely interested in the beautiful, often haunting movements that the young people made with whatever part of their body was mobile. And I loved seeing the powerful connection that making art together brought to parents and children coping with illness.
Dancing gave the children a chance to have their bodies back just for themselves. I remember one child, held tightly in a body cast, who created a dance with her face and toes. Another boy, desperately eager to be in his own bedroom in time for Christmas, made a dance about the toys he hoped he might get to open when he finally got home.
During my five years at the hospital, we only did one major performance where I brought in the dancers and the company I direct, and we put on a show. On that day, they brought all the kids, families, and available staff down to the atrium, where we danced several pieces from our repertory. Except for the lack of a conventional stage, it was very much a full-fledged performance. One of the dances, called "Bonsai", was a quiet piece that told the story of how the caretaking of these long-lived trees passes on to a new generation.
I noticed as we were performing this dance that a youngster in the front row had fallen asleep. I had met this child earlier in the week and had liked her, so I was sad to see her miss so much. As I was leaving the hospital, slightly dejected, one of the nurses ran after me and said in a very enthusiastic voice, "Thank you, thank you, we have been trying to get that kid to go to sleep for three days!"
Up to that point, I had thought one of the most important functions of art was to wake people up. Here I was confronted with information teaching me the opposite. I was grateful. I would never have learned this if I had stuck to the conventions of my profession and stayed only in the studio making dances.
If we are lucky and paying attention, we can discover over and over again that the intersection of art and real life affects the art form as much as it affects the community and the people involved.