When we think of health and wellness, we think about the mind, body and spirit. We imagine wholeness. … Why? Because every day, we have the opportunity to make conscious decisions about what we allow into our bodies. This includes not only what we eat, drink, watch, and listen to, but also our thoughts. To us at heidi duckler dance (HDD), wellness is how we realize our self image, and as artists, it is the overall practice we promote in our daily lives.

HDD is a non-profit organization based in Los Angeles’ Fashion District that creates place-based performances throughout Southern California and around the world. We also promote equity by providing high-quality arts education to underserved youth in our communities. As HDD’s Education & Community Manager, I am fortunate to be able to share my dance and fitness lifestyle with communities most in need. Having been afforded the opportunity to teach artist-in-residencies at schools throughout Los Angeles, I am dedicated to helping others make a positive transformation into a life of well-being, especially youth and seniors.

HDD transforms non-traditional spaces, provides learning opportunities by engaging diverse communities, and promotes the concept that the arts can change our vision of the world and of ourselves. Through working with HDD’s Artistic Director, Heidi Duckler, I have had the pleasure of seeing firsthand the power of utilizing all types of venues—from parking decks and libraries to mountain tops and busy city sidewalks—while simultaneously using arts from across different disciplines to uncover powerful stories. This process has allowed me to see how I, as an artist and an administrator, can incorporate wellness into our work. Using dance as a foundation, I identify unique spaces and commit to a community, and these acts provide an important structure of promoting the goals of well-being.

This year, HDD became the first Los Angeles dance company in history to receive a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts Our Town initiative to embark on a new creative placekeeping project, MOVE WELL @ MLK, on the Martin Luther King Jr. Hospital Campus in unincorporated Willowbrook (located in South Los Angeles). Our company has been honored and humbled to receive additional matching support from CalMHSA, California Arts Council, Los Angeles County Arts Commission, LA County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas’ office, Weingart Foundation, and individual donations from our community stakeholders. MOVE WELL @ MLK is inspired by conversations between Duckler and members of the community who have invited us to build relationships across the Campus through Duckler’s unique place-based storytelling practice. This long-term residency also aligns with the goals of the Willowbrook Transit-Oriented District Plan, designed by local civic and community leaders to lay the foundation for improvements to the area’s health and education facilities, parks, streetscapes, and public art.

MOVE WELL @ MLK is designed to use the dance-making process to build bonds among medical personnel, patients, students, seniors, and residents in one of Los Angeles County’s most ethnically diverse and economically challenged neighborhoods. It is important to us that our residency is free and open to the public, and includes community conversations, health and wellness workshops, pop-up performances, and a community festival featuring multidisciplinary artworks (including dance, music, poetry, and visual artworks) from the community members themselves. The residency also will include volunteer opportunities for community members to help make each project activity a successful, engaging experience for our participants. In order to make our work a success, we depend on cross-sector partnerships from local groups, including the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science (CDU), Department of Public Health, Supervisor Ridley-Thomas’ staff, and the California African American Museum, among others. The project’s themes explore the importance of movement to support circulation and decrease depression and anxiety, while maintaining focus on the self and building self-confidence among participants. Ultimately, the residency offers an opportunity for everyone to work together to innovate, build community, and advance a sense of pride for the treasures all around that make up this special part of Los Angeles.

MOVE WELL @ THE GATEWAY, the premiere event to jumpstart the Move Well @ MLK wellness series, took place on November 16, 2018 at The Gateway at Willowbrook, the newly opened affordable senior/homeless facilities above Willowbrook’s Gateway Library. I supervised and taught a health and wellness workshop, along with our Teaching Artist, Haylee Nichele, sharing and informing the community about the value of breathing, discovering space, and moving to extend life expectancy. We engaged the seniors and community participants in guided breathing exercises, seated and standing stretches, and cardio dance movements to get the heart racing and blood pumping. Following the movement portion of the workshop, participants enjoyed healthy snacks while engaging in a Q&A with Sylvia Drew Ivie and Noe Chavez. Drew Ivie is special assistant of community relations to the president CDU—which is named after her father, pioneering scientist and surgeon Charles Drew—and Chavez is Assistant Professor at CDU, College of Science and Health, Urban Health Institute with a PhD in Community Psychology. During the Q&A, participants engaged with health professionals in the science behind mental health and drug abuse, and how dance, movement, and focusing on conscious, deep breathing can contribute to a better and longer life.

We were thrilled to learn that our first workshop was a success, and many of the seniors expressed a need for having classes like this on a regular basis at their community center in the future. As we concluded our workshop, I led the participants in the chant, “I AM LOVE AND I AM A FEARLESS WARRIOR.” This chant was the perfect segue which prompted calls for other needs the residents have, including more access to free, healthy food for those who cannot afford it.

We call the work in which we are engaged in Willowbrook “placekeeping” rather than “placemaking,” because we believe that we do not need to “make” a place in Willowbrook—the place is already there. The community is asking us to use our practice to empower them to preserve and build on the strengths and tools they already have, in order to enhance the vitality of their neighborhood for years to come. By continuing to work in concert with our partners and with local residents, we hope to inspire a plethora of creative activities that continue on an ongoing basis throughout the Campus and across Willowbrook, creating a permanent space of connection and art where people can gather, share stories, and grow together.

I look forward to keeping you posted on what we discover as our residency continues over the next two years. If you would like to learn more about our work or get involved, feel free to reach out to me at jessica@heididuckler.org.