Breaking Ground 113: Beautiful Symmetry - A Story of Dance and Disability

by Jennifer James
a photo of a young black woman in a dance pose in a doorway with her head bowed to her right and slightly smiling, her arms outstretched and hands braced against the doorframe, and legs slightly bent at an angle; she is shown outdoors against a wall full of vibrant colorful graffiti, including a phrase above the door that says "all that enter here are blessed."  the pavement at her feet in covered in colorful chalk drawings
Jennifer James, dancer and Borderless Arts dance instructor

When I think back to the earliest memories of my life, the art of dance has always been a part of the conversation. It has been 34 years since I first entered the dance world. I can almost feel the vibration of the music on the stage, feel the leather of the ballet shoes on my feet, or anticipate the rhythm and wondrous sound of my little tap shoes as they strum across the wooden floor beneath me. I am grateful for the opportunity to incorporate my background in dance and education into the work I do now.

I hold a Bachelor of Science in Liberal Arts from Middle Tennessee State University with a concentration in Dance Pedagogy and Practice and a focus in Inclusive Movement Strategies. In May of this year, I will also hold a Master of Arts from MTSU with a focus in Arts Education and Non-Profit Organizational Leadership. In addition to the 15+ years I trained as a professional dancer, I’ve had incredible opportunities to study abroad in Guatemala, participate in studies with the John F Kennedy Center and Axis Dance Company, perform a contemporary residency at The Frist Center, and many valuable choreographic and performing experiences as an MTSU Dance Company member. However, some of my most memorable experiences have been working with Borderless Arts TN.

I first got involved with Borderless Arts through my connection with MTSU Dance Theatre.

My time as an undergraduate student in the dance department allowed me to combine my love for education and passion for dance. I wanted to explore more opportunities for dance communication and dance experiences among artists with disabilities. I was connected to Lori Kissinger, the director of Borderless Arts, in the fall of 2019. I began serving as the Borderless Arts dance intern in the spring of 2020 and the interim director for the new dance program.

As everything shifted towards going virtual in 2020, I used that time to build a foundation for our new dance program. The participants and I began meeting once a week via Zoom to dance and get to know each other. Even though we now have the opportunity to dance and perform at various events in person, we continue to meet and rehearse virtually. It is a fellowship I look forward to each week.

a young black woman shown in a dance pose, leaping in the air with one leg kicked out in front of her and her head back and arms up; she appears to be under a bridge with leaves covering the ground under her feet, and a creek, forest and shining sun behind her

Some of the highlights of my time with Borderless Arts have included:

  • The Beyond Space Dance Festival:  I directed a piece for film where our dancers had the opportunity to perform at Adventure Science Center in Nashville. This project was in collaboration with the Space for Art Foundation, Humans to Mars Summit, Ray Boone videography, and composer M. Hebbe.
  • I choreographed and facilitated the Dancing Beyond Borders International Dance Festival. This featured other community artists with disabilities as well as dance with an educational focus from China, Egypt, Greece, and Latin America.
  • More recently, we participated in performances at Dance the World Disney, the TN State Museum, and The Grand Ole Opry.
  • This summer, we have the opportunity to share our abilities in New York with Dance the World Broadway.

I look back on my time with Borderless Arts and the health challenges I have faced these past several years and can’t help but find the beautiful symmetry in the way in which life connects us. I have been surrounded by a community of artists with disabilities who have some of the bravest and most resilient hearts I know. Recently, I’ve found myself becoming part of the disability community. Defining my own disability identity has been complex. I recently suffered a transient ischemic attack and was diagnosed with a neurological disorder that damages the protective covering of my nerves, causing seizures, paralysis, and impaired movement. This has impacted the work I do with Borderless Arts in a remarkable way.

Despite the unique challenges we have all faced, we have come together as a community stronger than I could have ever imagined. We are determined to share the art of dance within the beautiful spaces of our individual bodies. Having learned to create modified dance experiences for our artists, I am now learning to create those modifications within myself. Just as the participants have inspired me these past several years, I hope I can continue to teach them the value of their stories and the ability to share them, no matter what. This journey has been a story of courage, resilience, and the power of the arts.

I believe movement serves a purpose beyond the stage. I believe that the work of the dance community is not limited to the stage. Like dance, life is captured in moments, highlighted by beauty, yet often abandoned when discomfort sets in. A lot of the time, the struggles and challenges of life happen in the dark. With dance, there is an opportunity for these untold stories to be seen and heard. I would encourage anyone who is interested in participating in dance or witnessing a dance performance to not be nervous. Dance is a joyous art form that is meant to be experienced with a community.

This journey would not be possible without the amazing community, families, and support from the TN Arts Commission, the TN Council on Developmental Disabilities, South Arts, International Paper Company, John F Kennedy Center, and other arts organizations. I want to express my gratitude to Meronica Forrester Kent, the younger sister of Borderless Arts dancer Bella, for her incredible leadership and bravery stepping in to lead at Dance the World Disney when I was unable to do so. She has been dancing since she was 3 years old and celebrated her 15th birthday while leading the Borderless Arts dance program for the Disney event. 

I am thankful for the creative spaces in Middle Tennessee and beyond in which we can dance. Thank you to Pamela Sykes of GypsyLenz Photography for capturing many of our memorable moments, and to videographer Ray Boone and composer M. Hebbe.

Celebrating 20 Years of Borderless Arts TN

From Lori Kissinger, Executive Director: Borderless Arts TN celebrated our 20th anniversary in 2022. We continued to offer weekly programs in dance, music, and visual arts, as well as in-school residencies and special digital holiday celebrations. However, our celebration also included a variety of unique programs. 

  1. Meet the Masters Art Series and Exhibition
  2. Presented a Horse Heritage piece of art to the Sumner County Commissioners
  3. Art at the Airport
  4. Created a Quilt Flag for the Veterans Center at MTSU
  5. Commercial Art Project exposing our participants to commercial work
  6. Created a piece of art based on the Antikythera Mechanism which was presented to Greece
  7. Water Warriors
  8. Special history art visual art and performances at the Tennessee State Museum
  9. Special performances held at the Grand Ole Opry House
  10. Digital art project with the Guggenheim Museum
  11. Digital art project and presentation to the United Nations
  12. First dance group of all dancers with disabilities to perform at Disney World
  13. Created a piece of art for the MOTE Marine Institute that was sent into the ocean
  14. Created a jersey for the Nashville Sounds
  15. Presented a special piece of art to Sun Records
  16. Participated in the Nashville Predators Score and Win Program
  17. Coordinated the "Bee Creative" project in which participants learned about bees and made art from bee products from a variety of workshops
  18. Hosted our first play based off an original story
  19. Started offering drum circle activities
  20. Offered mentoring in cartooning and writing for participants