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Meet Michelle Owens Pearce  

by Jennifer Marine

Although she is only 38, Michelle Owens Pearce has been teaching children to dance for 22 years, and if she had her way, every school would employ a movement specialist such as herself. "Kids really understand the world through physical sensations," she says. "They're still very close to the vibrancy of their bodies."

Dance has always been with Michelle. As a young girl she would hang out at her motherís dance studio in Garland and watch her teach. Later, as a teen, she began teaching her motherís preschool class "instead of working at McDonaldsís." Michelle believes that dancing gave her a strong and early sense of herself, confidence and a belief in her creativity. She wants everyone to have this same experience.

Michelle received her Masters in Modern Dance with an emphasis in Dance Education from the University of Utah (one of the few programs in the country to offer such an emphasis). Prior to her graduate work, she taught in private dance studios, but something was always missing.  The class populations were fairly homogenous, and she yearned to work with a wider range of people, such as boys or people with disabilities. She found herself moving away from traditional areas and into modern dance.

In graduate school, her thesis focused on enabling students to get the most out of their experience, how to make it as rich as possible even if they were not pursuing professional dance (most were not). And she found a mentor in the process -- assisting a woman who was then forming a dance company for young people with disabilities.

Already experienced in working with young people's pacing and transitions, Michelle found that working with the disabled was very similar, with the exception of speed. "Whereas a fifth grade class might be able to learn material in one class, it might take a first grade class one month, a disabled class one semester, and a severely disabled class even longer -- reducing the steps to their most basic forms, up close."

She was inspired by some of the forerunners of modern dance, such as Martha Graham, Isadora Duncan and Loie Fuller. "Isadora Duncan, in particular," Michelle notes, "defied a rigid dance structure, saying, 'I can move my body in my own way, not this particular way or that -- I will develop my own vocabulary.' Everyone has that right. In modern dance, you play around a lot more with space and time, everything is much more open to interpretation."

"One of the crimes of western civilization," Pearce continues, "is that people feel self-conscious about even the idea of dancing -- the little old granny in a more underdeveloped part of the world thinks nothing of shaking her butt when she hears someone banging on those drums, focusing instead on how it feels to move."

Michelle teaches modern dance for children at a shared studio space at Cafť Dance; she's in her sixth year of teaching private classes. She thrives on the incredible diversity of her grant work, which for her, represents a "field of humanity," and has a unifying effect. For the past eight years, she has received funding from the City of Austin, and the Texas Commission of the Arts. She has two dance residency programs: one currently housed at Zilker Elementary, and the other in the Life Skills Department at Crockett High School for students with physical or mental disabilities. At Crockett, she leads a performing troupe of students, teachers and professional dancers that tour elementary schools in Austin. At the peak of her teaching, she sees over 250 students a week. She feels especially grateful to have been drawn to this work as her daughter Rebecca (6) was born with a difference in her fingers and toes.

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The Countess Galleria / Sarah Higdon

Facilitating kinesthetic experiences and working with the basic elements of movement, Michelle has faith in each and every child, and they regularly exceed her expectations. "Dance is in our cells, itís a collective experience, a coming together of and using movement as symbols of unity, meaning, individuality. The curriculum lends itself to universality, and focuses on the inside experience, both qualitatively (valuing self and others, learning respect by mirroring, cooperating with, expressing and discovering yourself and others) and quantitatively (balance, strength, and coordination)."

"I feel so lucky to have grown up with dance in my life. Itís a privilege to work in a field that celebrates human existence. This work helps keep me expressive and clear. Dance is consciousness changing -- you can see it happening right in front of your eyes."

"Itís a lovely, healing world to be inÖ"

Here's more from Michelle:

Who inspired you when you were growing up and why?

My mother, Gwen. She is so loving and creative, and she built her life around dance. She danced a tap solo last year at the celebration of her 35th spring dance recital.

You are face to face with your ten-year-old self. You have one thing to say to her about her future, what do you say?

Everything is going to be okay. Keep dancing, laughing and loving.

What is the biggest contradiction you see mothers being faced with today?

Keeping our girls at their age level while the media, the pop culture and the fashion industry try to sexualize them.

What do you see as your biggest challenge in being the kind of person you want to be?

I am the kind of person I want to be, but Iím not seeking perfection. You are going to fall down, youíre going to make mistakes, but that doesnít mean youíre a bad person. Besides, perfection would get boring real quick.

What makes you most happy about what you give back to the world?

I believe this work can change consciousness in its respect for self and others. People can come to know and value themselves through dance. Itís a positive force in this world.

What two notable people would you like to see handcuffed together for a day?

Richard Simmons and Jerry Falwell

What do you wish you could automatically grant, like a fairy godmother, to mothers during trying times?

The most trying times for me as a mother have been when I am exhausted and overwhelmed, so I would grant that every hour of sleep was worth three more.
Thanks, Michelle!

Michelle can be reached at Cafť Dance at 451-8066 (near Hancock and Balcones)

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