Breaking Ground 109 Arts - Steal Away: Soul Connection Through Dance and Music

by Shabaz Ujima
Friend’s Life participants and dancers Kaylea Dunkin and Keonna Reed are shown standing side by side centerstage with their arms spread out. They are wearing loose and flowing white clothing in front of a white backdrop. Behind them in the shadows you can see a flute player playing the music they are dancing to. Kaylea is a white young woman with Down syndrome with short blonde hair and glasses. Keonna is a Black young woman with Down syndrome with short black hair and a big smile
Photo credit: Tiffany Bessire, courtesy of OZ Arts Nashville

I am a native Nashvillian as well as a dancer, teacher, choreographer, and activist.  I founded Shackled Feet DANCE! as a means to share the stories of those who are voiceless and to give space for people to reconnect with the power of dance, movement, and creativity.

I was approached by Dave Ragland, a local composer, about providing the element of movement to his opera, Steal Away. I knew that I wanted to create a world on stage that reflected our whole community.  While speaking with one of the elder dancers in the cast, she mentioned that we didn’t have the perspective of those with disabilities. I immediately reached out Sarah Edwards of Friend’s Life (note below) to see how we could collaborate! With great enthusiasm, Sarah and the Friend’s Life team reached out to their brilliant artists and we assembled a dynamic cast.

A cast photo shows a very diverse group of about a dozen dancers posing together in the performance attire, mostly white and tan clothing.
Photo credit: Tiffany Bessire, courtesy of OZ Arts Nashville

Everyone from the entire cast was blown away and inspired by their passion and generosity.  We were all one on stage, despite differences in our age, color, and physical and mental abilities.

Our synergy together created an experience that was heartfelt and that touched the deepest parts of the soul. It was what we ALL needed during these times of division.

In the words of the legendary choreographer Alvin Ailey, I learned that “Dance is for the people and should be given back to the people.” Dance and art connect us all through spirit and that connection goes beyond what divides us.

To view the full production, visit:

Note: Friend’s Life Community is a Nashville center that offers opportunities for teenagers and adults with disabilities to develop socially, grow personally, and enjoy community as they experience life together. Programs include Service Learning, Life Skills, and Advocacy through the Arts.

3 dancers, two men and a woman, are shown from the side standing in a row in the midst of performing. The woman is a young woman with Down syndrome with short cropped blonde hair, a loose white blouse, and a long flowing purple skirt. The men on either side of her are shirtless and wearing loose flowing yellow pants
Photo credit: Tiffany Bessire, courtesy of OZ Arts Nashville