Why would we move? Simply, because it brings joy.

Not joy that communicates, “Yes! I am really happy!” but joy like a light source giving power that feels whole, tangible, and multidimensional.

Sometimes it is difficult to search for or find joy. Sometimes we may feel inferior, or like a wall is built around our very being. How can we locate joy when there is no joy to be found?

Simply begin to move.

As a hearing-impaired person, the act of expressing through movement was a great discovery when I was younger. Movement allowed me to discover what it means to be alive; to discover a channel of expression that feels organic, innate, and truly from the soul.

I often tell people that if I was not hearing impaired, I am not sure I would be as fully invested in movement practice as I am. Movement became my communicative channel, my expressive channel, and an entry point to the canal of possibilities. I was hooked on movement—not so much with the steps of movement, but rather with how it made me feel when I pretended I was a snake crawling on the floor or when the rhythms of a particular piece of music needed to be physicalized. Movement became a way to tell my story as a performer, a movement director/choreographer, an educator, and, most importantly, a human being.

A mission of mine is to enable as many people as possible to experience their inner soul through the medium of movement. Regardless of experience, age, or disability, I believe the art of movement can be an entry point into how to engage, explore, and become enriched by and discover the world around us. I use movement to help people discover the world that exists inside of them.

My research at Boston University—where I currently teach—and beyond has focused on how movement practice can be accessible. I often observe experiences where “steps” are taught and the student “freezes.” Fear creeps inside them. Suddenly they feel inadequate and begin to judge themselves. The steps of movement get in the way of movement.

The opportunity here lies in knowing that their body is the solution, not a problem.

When working with actors, regardless of experience, the key is in the welcoming. It is in allowing them to explore how their body, their instrument, provides access to their imagination.

I begin by building language that they can relate to. How do their universal (neutral) bodies respond to different shapes (circular, angular, linear) and planes (vertical, horizontal, etc.)? How does their body create efforts (press, glide, flick, punch, etc.)?

Once the language of movement is ingrained, the students begin to explore how their instrument informs the act of theatrical “play.” How can “play” be accessible? This is a wonderful opportunity for the facilitator to take their practitioner on a journey back to their inner child. The essential discovery here in the facilitation is not that I am not taking the practitioner back to their entire childhood but rather to a time, perhaps by looking at photo taken or listening to their favorite song, when they felt most ecstatic in their childhood. Where any challenges of childhood disappeared—where everything froze in time. Where “joy” existed, even if for only a second.

Once this liberating freedom and ecstaticism of doing is embraced, the facilitator can then guide the practitioner to translate play into storytelling. I start by having them work with and embody a single word or phrase. Once they’ve developed an action or actions in relation to this simple idea, we add text. What happens, for example, if they recite Gabriela’s tree monologue from Jose Rivera’s play References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot? How does the action embody the monologue? How does the experience become, most essentially, transformative?

Lastly, discipline and repetition is key. Repetition allows the principles to become ingrained to the point that the artist can simply respond, not allowing technique or information to get in the way, but instead to expand their artistry. When ballet dancers execute a series of exercises every day at the barre, they are conditioning the body to eventually support freedom in what most matters: letting the steps not get in the way of the dance. What is essential here is that there is ecstaticisim in the repetition—by mixing up the phrases here and there, perhaps doing the same exercise differently on another day. Ecstasticism and joy are key in that the feeling is there to support and stimulate a new day and new horizon to come. Joy in learning supports sustainability—sustaining through wear and tear, loss of a role, loss of flexibility. The body may say it is time to stop but that doesn’t mean your heart has to as well.

Yo-El Cassell guides students in a movement exercise
Yo-EL Cassell guiding students from Boston Arts Academy in a movement exercise. Photo by Robert Torres.

In making movement work accessible to practitioners with different abilities or disabilities, the entry point is in creating an opportunity that communicates, “I have the ability”—creating experiences that can become translatable. For example, I once had the incredible honor of working with young men who had little to no experience with any specific type of movement training. What they did find comfortable, though, was basketball. For one of our classes, I took them to a basketball game and asked, “What do you see?” The answers were, “I see players playing basketball,” or “ I see two teams playing each other.” Hoping for more, I continued by asking them if they also see patterns, use of repetition, use of rhythm, and so on. Curiosity built and, most essentially, excitement in finding connections. We were able to build from this ecstaticism during the next class, when we played a game of basketball in the studio. As they were playing, I took the ball away and provided a soundtrack—their pattern making, the way they went around each other, the way they partnered up for scrimmage play looked like poetry in motion.

Most essentially, they found their joy in movement.

When working with practitioners who may not be able to hear, see, or walk, what I found helpful is to embrace what they can do. If a practitioner uses a wheelchair, there is a wonderful opportunity to encourage them to investigate moving with the wheelchair as an extension of their identity, their body, and their soul. The key is to make them feel like they can own the experience—being supportive by making sure we’re in an accessible studio and that their needs are met, but at the same time, empowering them to know they are valued partners in the experience of learning.

This partnership is always necessary: an educator or movement director must be a willing partner with the practitioner or artist. We must allow the practitioner to meet us on a horizontal plane, rather than a vertical one. In that partnership, the experience becomes fueled by shared learning, shared possibilities, and shared discoveries.

It is our job to locate relatability and excitement in the process of learning. Once excitement is embraced, there is a desire and hopefully a commitment to learn more. The commitment feels less like work and more like wings of the soul flapping.