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Transformed By Art

They dance as if no one were watching them, yet all eyes in the room are riveted to their movements. Their hands glide around their bodies, suggesting the rarest kind of freedom. Some close their eyes, lost in the music. Others dance with an intensity and focus that is as powerful as it is inspiring. To watch these dancers is to witness firsthand the transforming power of art, and, in many ways, defines the word “grace.”

By Gary Artman/Photography by Johnny Quirin
Dancers toss scarves into the air to create a moving flower.

For more than 15 years, the Living Light Dance Company has provided an artistic outlet for older children and adults living with challenges such as Down syndrome, Williams syndrome, and visual and hearing impairments. The company keeps a busy schedule, rehearsing every week for hours at a time and performing about 15 times a year around West Michigan, including during June’s Festival of the Arts and at the Institute for Global Education Peace Festival. The dancers have been invited to perform at the Kennedy Center for the Arts, and members of Living Light have flown to Belize and the Dominican Republic to participate in workshops.

The dancers’ practice room is in the lower level of a church. It is a large room that probably serves as Sunday school classroom and youth group meeting area during the week. The room dividers are open, but they do not need to be: The entire operation — including dancers, rehearsal space, music, instruction and even an area for observers — takes up less than half the room.

They have finished rehearsing their first number. As the music fades, chatter rises as members catch up on each other’s news. Delight Lester, founder of Living Light and its sole dance instructor, asks for everyone’s attention, which she receives immediately. The dancers arrange themselves in two rows — 14 pairs of feet, some in socks, some in leotards — and wait for Lester’s instruction. She leads the one male and six female dancers through their next number, set to Shania Twain’s “I’m Gonna Get You Good.”

For this piece they use long, colorful scarves. With crimson, sunflower, tangerine and hunter green ebbing and flowing, rising and swaying, the room becomes a beautiful flower, alive with the rhythms pulsing out from the speakers of a CD player. It is a breathtaking sight. The scarves disappear for the next number, which features jazz music, but they will reappear later, transforming the church basement into a Brazilian forest resounding with percussion, and a New Age dream ethereal with flute and piano.

“ Variety is the spice of life,“ says Lester. “I try to keep my kids on their toes, so to speak.”

Lester originally moved to Grand Rapids in 1966 from New Jersey when her father, Don, became pastor of a Presbyterian church. After six years, she moved with her family to the Detroit area, but moved back to West Michigan in 1987 to complete her education at Grand Valley State University. She established the Living Light Dance Company after her friend gave birth to a baby with Down syndrome. Lester, who is a medical social worker (her minor at Oakland University was in dance), began to investigate what artistic resources were available in West Michigan. To her surprise, “there was nothing artistic available in the local area for people with disabilities — nothing. I couldn’t imagine my friend’s child growing up with no avenue to express her artistry.”

Lester decided to stay in Grand Rapids and ensure that every child that wanted to could participate in the arts. She had ample experience to make it happen; while still in high school, Lester volunteered to teach dance at the FAR Conservatory for Therapeutic and Performing Arts in Birmingham. At age 19 she was organizing her own classes and teaching dance, community theater and singing.

Armed with nothing but a vision, Lester started Living Light in 1988. At the beginning, things were a little rough (at one point she was living out of her car), but she held on, and after some time Living Light began to receive support from benefactors and agencies, including the Mary Free Bed Guild and Very Special Arts. With each year, Living Light added more members, and now is 12 members strong.

Vicki VanderWal has participated in Living Light since the beginning and has no intention of leaving anytime soon. She is full of confidence, conversation and charisma. “I really enjoy the movement — it is good exercise — and I love to perform, but my biggest reason for staying is Delight,” says VanderWal. “She has really influenced all of us as artists and as people.”

Brent McAlister is a born performer. His enthusiasm is infectious, and he clearly enjoys putting on a show. “Ever since I was little, I liked to have fun and make people smile,” he says. “Living Light is so much fun, and we have grown to be a family.”

He isn’t kidding. About an hour into the rehearsal, Autumn DeWild, another member, arrives. She receives an outburst of enthusiastic welcome, although it has only been a week since they last saw each other. The shared affection is genuine and heartening. It is clear that this group really cares about one another.

“ A few years back, I was going through a rough patch in my personal life,” says Lester. “I didn’t say a word about it to anyone at Living Light, but you know what? They knew. All of them consoled me and tried to make me feel better. That’s when I realized that this was much bigger than the sum of its parts.”

As Autumn joins her fellow dancers, her mother, Marsha DeWild, explains the effect that Living Light has had on her daughter.

“ Autumn has always loved dance. The former dance studio had mirrors, and when Autumn danced she would watch herself move. Dancing brought out something in her that nothing else could. Dance is one creative expression that doesn’t know limits. For someone who has limits, it sets them free.”

“ The parents are the backbone of Living Light, there is no doubt about it,” says Lester. “They are all so wonderful. They get the kids where they need to be, they help with costumes, you name it. They are all so very supportive, and they don’t ask for anything in return. They just want to see their kids participate. We wouldn’t be as successful as we are without them.”

With years of success behind her, Lester now looks to the future — specifically, how to sustain and expand on programs such as this one. Lester believes the answer lies in other agencies that provide extracurricular arts activities.

“ One of my goals is to teach other art instructors to be comfortable working with people who have disabilities,” she said. “We need other agencies and organizations to provide year-round art programs.”
Despite the presence of such a good example, there are still many people who misunderstand what Living Light — and for that matter, what any art program for people with disabilities — is about. Lester is happy to tell them, once again, that it’s about the art, period.

“ Living Light is not therapy; it is simply an artistic opportunity. These are real dancers, and they work very hard to be the best they can be,” says Lester. “To think otherwise is to completely miss the point. We bring this to the people and hope that they enjoy it for the art, not because they are people with special needs. I want people to look beyond the crutches and wheelchairs and see art.” GR

Gary Artman is a free-lance writer who lives in Grand Rapids. For more information about the Living Light Dance Company, call Delight Lester at 452-4872.

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