THE ARTIST AND AUTHOR
Gia Kourlas’s latest memoir, “Ivy,” is about her experiences growing up as a young adult with Down syndrome. She has a degree in the discipline and teaches it to young people.
A teacher’s friend turned dancer. That is the definition of destiny — as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had in mind when he asked, “When we begin to make freedom real for all of God’s children,” he was talking about physical freedom, educational freedom and social freedom, among others.
Dance opened the doors to unanticipated possibilities in the private lives of my siblings and me. We’d never become overjoyed in taking up instruments. No, no, no. But dancing, as an artist, was at the center of being a child of a disability.
When my twin sister, Tara, began taking ballet in ballet school, I followed soon after, learning to do the step every time we went out together and after hours at the ballet studio. In a sense, dance became a kind of communication for us to express a common dream.
In a short period of time, I fell deeply in love with dancing in particular, and it won my heart in a way that writing could not. I still can’t express to the unadulterated love I feel about it.
I believe that we’re born of a certain energy. What dancing taught me is to channel it. Dance taught me there was another energy in me. It taught me I had a ‘thing.’ Even though I came from a dance world — it wasn’t my world, my home — I felt connected to it and could feel my energy there in the way that neither music nor writing could feel.
Courtesy of Gia Kourlas Dance teacher and author Gia Kourlas, who has Down syndrome.
Dance made me know that I was beautiful. My twin sister would call me ‘minnie.’ I grew up feeling like an ‘ugly duckling.’ Dancing made me feel beautiful. In those early years, that little voice of doubt and rejection that I had felt when people came up to me and told me, ‘You’re not the same,’ was silenced by dance. The dance studio told me I was my own person.
Now, a storyteller, I strive to use my gift of communication to tell stories about other people and to entertain. That dance does have power to inspire in others is not a surprise. I also know it can take fear and pain to have the ability to generate that kind of power, and that to have that gift is to have a great deal of responsibility. We have a responsibility not only to our audience but to ourselves. It can be a terrifying enterprise. It isn’t always as easy as it looks.
Currently, I teach dance, theater and choreography to students of all abilities — with Down syndrome and without, autistic and neurotypical, etc. And this may explain the dance career choice I made for myself, way back when, as a child. Because dance isn’t merely a representation of movement. In dance, being can be about communicating much more than the physical actions.
What I do knows how it feels to not be yourself. It doesn’t feel simple. Not all the time. But dance has held out a door to challenge us in ways we are discovering and getting better at, each step of the way. It has given us the ability to take a breath and be present in the moment, even if we don’t want to be.
That is amazing. What doesn’t mean anything is the song you sing when no one is looking, or the colors of the kaleidoscope you sculpt on the wall, and what is even more amazing is that the beauty of the arts is always present. The front row at the ballet — even the youngest of our students — gets to see what it’s like to dance, even if in a way we can’t in our everyday lives.
That’s not the artistic side of the arts — I see the elegance and tradition. The saying behind it: The academy is but the preparation for a dance company.
Or just being with your friends on a hot August day.