Bonnie Lewkowicz

Bonnie_Lewkowicz_photo_by_Gregory_Bartning_006Bonnie Lewkowicz, a long time Berkeley resident and one of the founders and dancers of the physically integrated AXIS Dance Company, has greatly impacted the world of physically integrated dance.  A dancer and performer for over 30 years, she shares her personal experience with dance and its impact on her life and the lives of others.

Being a founder of AXIS Dance Company is one of Bonnie’s proudest achievements. Through this organization she has been able to bring dance to people who don’t typically have access to dance programs and classes, discuss dance & disability with the general population, and advocate that dance is for everyone. Today, AXIS celebrates 30 years. They began with an original cast of five dancers and in 2017 they will perform original pieces from their inception.

When AXIS started it was as a performance company and people came up to us to want to learn how to dance like this. So we started a community class. We were able to create new dancers for the company. We had a parent who wanted her child to take a class. I started teaching the youth classes – a physically integrated class. Students with disabilities brought their siblings. One girl who came is now 24 years old and she did not have a disability but her mom did. Now she is studying dance in college.

Through community classes the founders and dancers started to recognize that education was a big component of their work, leading them to conduct community classes for adults and grades K-6 assemblies in public and private schools. The company and the assemblies focused on dance: modeling people with and without disabilities dancing, and dancing together.  “This was the most rewarding for me,” reflects Bonnie. The company  also taught on the roster for Young Audiences in schools, and when they went on tour education was a large component of their work.

An alum of Summer Institute, one of the things she learned was not to be always set on a lesson plan, but to have a “grab bag” of dance activities. Bonnie remembers teaching at schools and being told that they would only have students with physical disabilities, but actually there was a range of physical to cognitive disabilities. She shares how this required them “to create on the fly.”  Having a grab bag and multimodal approach allowed for her to be successful in those situations.

As a dance educator and performer, Bonnie continues to ask herself is it appropriate or beneficial to physically move someone who cannot move their own body. “At AXIS we always had this rule that you had to initiate your own movement. Then we would go into schools where we don’t make the rules and the paraprofessionals would move children – their chair, body parts.”  Aware that this practice continues in different organizations, Bonnie is curious about the policies and value around moving children with physical disabilities.  She is also curious when creating phrases or dances is it beneficial to have the teacher say copy me, copy what I am doing versus see what I am doing? Is there ever a time when it is appropriate to just model?

At times I find it a relief to have someone else tell me what to do, rather than come up with something on my own. For the first 10 years of AXIS we did our own choreography and after that we invited choreographers in. Especially since kids with disabilities may not have a time to play in a movement oriented way they could then access their own movement.

In both inquiries she has become less rigid, and instead notices what is appropriate for that movement. She and other peers have learned that teaching phrases can be a tool to support student success. “You can see that kids and in particular kids on the autism spectrum experience doing something over and over again as rewarding. Repetition can give them a sense of accomplishment. As a teacher you have to get over the idea that this is boring.”

In the past three years she has shifted her energy from teaching at AXIS to concentrating on the nonprofit she started called ACCess NorCal and its merging with Bay Area Outreach Recreation Program (BORP). They run adaptive cycling programs and advocate for accessible trails. Often you can find her cycling along the Berkeley Marina.

In addition, she is an annual guest teacher at Luna’s Summer Dance Institute. In her presentation she discusses disability and its different definitions (moral model, medical model, social model). She clarifies accessibility versus inclusion and Bonnie croppedprovides ways for dance educators to think about both. Overall the presentation supports creating inclusive dance education environments for all ability students.

When asked to share a story that impacted her, Bonnie remembered a time when AXIS was teaching a 10 week session in San Jose to children who didn’t have identifiable disabilities. The children first saw the assembly and then took classes with AXIS dancers. After the third class one student lifted his shirt to show his peers that he had been burned over 90% of his body as a kid. Bonnie  shared, “Being in the dance class gave him permission to be who he was.” Bonnie and the student got together after. She learned that he had been accidentally burned by his uncle.  This experience caused him to have a really challenging childhood. After he opened up to his peers, teachers shared that he was actually doing pretty well. His teacher didn’t know anything about it. Bonnie expressed, “So it really instilled in him a confidence in his own body, which is what we try to pass on teaching dance.”

In our 25 years, Luna has worked with hundreds of teachers who we’re now proud to say are teaching all around the globe. From Emily Blossom to Jakey Toor, our past Professional Learning colleagues are collectively and cumulatively teaching tens of thousands of children. Starting in 2017 we will share their stories, one each week, about how they continue to positively impact the dance education field, the future, the world. To read the growing anthology, please click here.