Artist Connections, Arts for All, Boston Community

An Afternoon of Dance at the Murphy School

On Thursday, January 17, students at the Richard J. Murphy K-8 School in Dorchester gathered in their cafeteria about an hour before dismissal. With caregivers, teachers, and their fellow general education students, a group of students with severe physical and cognitive disabilities participated as Solomon Dumas, Samantha Figgins, and Chalvar Monteiro, principals from Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, performed excerpts and led an interactive workshop. As part of the Celebrity Series Artist Connections program, the trio visited the Murphy School during their tour of five Boston-area schools (see the photo gallery here).

For over 20 years, Celebrity Series has benefited from generous support from The Peabody Foundation for support for educational activities for children with physical disabilities. Our annual residency with the Ailey dancers has become a tradition to which students and staff look forward every year. We were thrilled to bring the workshop back to two longstanding partners – The Cotting School in Lexington and Kennedy Day School at Franciscan Children’s – and to welcome the Murphy School as a new partner. The workshop marked the first time that we brought Ailey dancers to the Murphy School and, according to Murphy School occupational therapist Amy Mastrangelo, the residency may be the first time that her students have seen a live performance from world-class dancers.

After the workshop Mastrangelo sent us a letter which read:

‘I have seen, first hand, how exposure to the arts can breathe new energy and light into our students. You see, ours is considered a “high poverty” school. To be frank, I don’t know how many of our students would have ever had the opportunity to be in the presence of any live art, never mind the exuberant, dynamic, and phenomenal dancers of Alvin Ailey.’

Dancers Dumas, Figgins, and Chalvar not only brought the poise, athleticism, and artistic expression you would expect from an Ailey dancer but they also brought an infectious energy and a genuine enthusiasm during their workshop. In performance, the trio snapped into a laser focus to execute spectacular choreography and, when interacting with students, eased into a warm presence that elicited smiles and laughter.

Samantha Figgins

Something special transpired in the Murphy School cafeteria. Mastrangelo described the experience in her letter:

‘During my dismissal duty yesterday, I spoke with several of our general education fifth graders after the performance. I can hardly convey to you the genuine excitement and wonder I heard in their voices. They were practically bursting, in that special way we all feel, after being a part of something amazing. I don’t think that I need to climb up onto my “the importance of arts education” soapbox here, as I’m sure it comes as no surprise to you and your colleagues, but arts education changes students’ lives for the better, even if it’s just an afternoon of dancing.

More significantly however, at the Murphy School we serve a population of students with severe physical and cognitive disabilities. Our students, aged 3 to 14, present with a variety of diagnosis, prognoses, and overall variable levels of function. Some of our students have complex medical needs and require the presence of a one-to-one nurse at all times. Most of our students are nonverbal, most of our students are unable to independently ambulate, all of our students are completely dependent on adults for their safety, and well-being. Please do not think I am trying to garner pity. Our students are just that -students! They are children who come to school to learn and play, who have meaningful relationships with their peers and teachers, and who are happy and comfortable (at least most of the time!)

I’ve been working with students with severe disabilities for the better part of ten years. I feel strongly that we, as devoted professionals, but also as a society as a whole, are still learning how to best serve these individuals. With that being said, whilst we were all looking forward to their opportunity to be at the Ailey performance, none of us really knew what to expect. What happened was more exciting than we could have hoped. Students who regularly participate in self-injurious behavior were squealing happily. Students who prefer to retreat into self-stimulatory behavior were looking up and out, and waving their arms and legs. Students with limited mobility were dancing, really dancing! Simply stated, our students had an incredible time. Our students experienced sensations, whether visual, auditory, or perceptively, that they may not have ever had, if the Ailey dancers hadn’t come to perform for them.

Speaking of the dancers, I have to extend my deepest gratitude to those three individuals for the kindness and compassion they showed, specifically to our significantly involved students. They approached our students with open hearts, and regarded them with kindness and dignity, which is an immense courtesy that is not always afforded to individuals with disabilities. It is so comforting to me, as a therapist who tries to shelter her students from harsh words and harsher prejudices, to see my students have positive, meaningful interactions with members of the greater community.

If you can’t tell, I am overflowing with joy. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you, and all the people involved in bringing yesterday’s performance to the students of the Murphy School. I’m admittedly teary eyed as I write this, because I feel that no matter how desperately I try to describe it, I will fall short of incapsulating just how magical the afternoon was. We’re still feeling that magic the next day, and probably will be for days to come.’

Solomon Dumas, Samantha Figgins, and Chalvar Monteiro with a Murphy School student

Celebrity Series of Boston is grateful to our 2018-19 Season Sponsors Amy & Joshua Boger, and to the many individual donors whose generosity supports Arts for All!. Celebrity Series is also grateful to the following corporations, foundations, and government agencies for their support in the 2018-19 season: the Barr Foundation through its ArtsAmplified Initiative, Boston Cultural Council, The Boston Foundation, Stephanie L. Brown Foundation, Susanne Marcus Collins Foundation, First Republic Bank, Liberty Mutual Foundation, Massachusetts Cultural Council, National Endowment for the Arts, Outside the Box: A Production of the Boston Arts Summer Institute, Bessie Pappas Charitable Foundation, The Peabody Foundation, Stifler Family Foundation, Tufts Health Plan, Anonymous, and other generous supporters.

We are grateful to The Peabody Foundation for their support of interactive workshops led by Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater for students with physical disabilities at The Cotting School, Kennedy Day School at Franciscan Children’s, and the Richard J. Murphy K-8 School.

All photos by Robert Torres.

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