A Journey into Chaos: Creating Healing in Homeless Shelters

By Dawn McMahan

September 1, 2009, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

My work with the homeless didn’t start out as a brave act. It started as a necessary act.

The adventure began when I moved myself and my dance company, Pythia, into our first studio. It was in a corner of one of those huge warehouse spaces in West Oakland, a building named Overload. The rent was wonderfully cheap and my space was large. The high ceilings and remote location were perfect for me to explore aerial dance, create with my company and heal bodywork clients at any hour of the day and night, build sculptures and play loud music. It wasn’t glamorous, but we didn’t need that. It was a makeshift space, with walls constructed from old theatre set pieces. The other tenants, though I didn’t know them, seemed nice, and I assumed they would be willing to respect our privacy, as they were in the same vulnerable, makeshift situation. I was wrong.

Slowly I became aware that many of people who hung around Overload were suffering from severe mental illness or substance abuse. Many had major boundary issues, due to their disabilities. This all unfolded, little by little, as I settled into my corner. I wanted to fully invest in creating, so I decided to make it my mission to find a peaceful and respectful way to cohabit with them. I helped them with their bodies, and became educated about the physiological affects of certain medications, long-term alcoholism and the abuse of various drugs. I taught them, hung out with them, fed them, got to know them, and loved them. I became Everywoman to them. Often I felt like some kind of nun, or an emissary from another land, or an immigrant settler alone on the prairie. This was true especially at night, when I went to bed with a huge butcher knife underneath my bed mat for protection. I had wonderment and a sense of adventure about it, mingled with a fear from which I fought hard to deliver myself.

By the time I left Overload I had learned a huge lesson: that it was difficult to deal with one’s clients full time and keep oneself whole. When I moved, I took a piece of Overload with me. I had talked myself into believing that the lack of physical boundaries for my space presented nothing more than an interesting perceptual and personal challenge, I became more interested in exploring and questioning the need for boundaries and security in myself. Even though I was never physically harmed or molested while at Overload, what I went through there affected me as if I had.

I had to recuperate from Overload and wanted to find my own way to reclaim my body and my mind. I had studied and trained in different somatic modalities: Feldenkrais, massage, yoga, dance, Laban Movement Analysis with the Integrated Movement Studies program, and had helped hundreds of clients, so I was well equipped for this adventure of finding an innovative method of healing myself. I had no idea what the end of this journey would be, and still don’t.

After working on myself for eight months, I decided to add another dimension to my recuperation by volunteer teaching in a homeless shelter. I thought of my experiences at Overload as similar to what homeless women must endure; constant lack of privacy and physical vulnerability while sleeping, plus erratic behavior from people surrounding me—or so I thought. I wanted to help, but by my third session teaching a movement class in a shelter I realized my assumptions were incorrect as to who these women were and what their lives were like. So, I started to hang out with the women in the shelter for a few hours after each class.

Not having a manual for this kind of work, and no one to follow, has helped the healing impact of the work. Part of my healing ability comes from having the courage to swim in the cabal, the chaos, and embrace the unknown in myself when I enter a shelter. It’s a demanding type of courage that comes from my work as an artist; it demands letting go of expectations and assumptions. The subsequent freedom allows me to be as real and honest with my clients as I wish them to be with themselves. As I form a training program for others to work with me in the shelters, I am taking into consideration how to instill this in them.

The Phoenix Rising Homeless Project was developed into a viable program with the support of Pam Hagen, former Executive Director of LINES Ballet and an Isadora Duncan award recipient for her lifetime achievement in the Bay Area dance community. It is an innovative healing movement program offered, free of charge, to homeless shelters that serve women and teenagers in the Bay Area. We offer it to the entire shelter as a means of building community and trust. We achieve this through creative and therapeutic body-conscious experiences that utilize many somatic modalities and dance. Today, we are privately funded, have a corporate sponsorship, and present regular, ongoing classes in three Oakland homeless shelters. We plan to add two more by the end of the year.

It is very difficult to keep one’s heart open to any outcome when working with homeless clients. It’s hard to be committed to another’s recuperation unconditionally, so hard, and so easy to not realize when one is off track. The disappointments take their toll.

This program provides a way to connect homeless women more deeply to the shelter itself. It enables them to commit to something that is healthy, as well as fun. While homeless women are often lectured on how to take care of themselves, this class educates collaboratively, and it also encourages them to see their doctors. I encourage all shelter clients and staff to watch class even if they don’t participate in the movement portion. The whole experience is important. The body joins in a little, empathizes a little, even by sitting and watching the class. People are affected by witnessing someone else being healed, making discoveries, feeling better about themselves.

When confronting the issue of exploitation of the body with prostitutes and drug addicts, it seems evident that strong boundaries need to be in place, and that my intentions need to be blaringly clear. It’s complicated; my boundaries cannot be derived from pity. These women can smell pity from a mile away, and the presence of pity complicates the class, complicates their response to the work. What has helped me is finding in myself a genuine respect for these women, and I found this with their help.

These women have led incredible lives; they are warriors. It takes a huge effort to bring oneself to a shelter and decide to change.

I make the goals clear to my clients by showing them how empowered they are, how much they can change themselves with simple movements that don’t need to be perfectly executed.

Simple exercises taken from trainings that involve body connectivity have a deep resonance with these women. A shelter director once told me that one of the reasons she values my class is that I am giving the clients the opportunity to accomplish little victories, which is important for someone who feels incapable of functioning in the world.

Another gift this program brings is a way of helping homeless women towards healing the fear of racism. Homelessness is very much a race issue, especially in Oakland. You can lecture until you are blue in the face about it, but racism is felt in the body. All of the talking in the world isn’t going to change the mind of a woman who has been victimized by racism. The fear of it, the expectation of it, is stifling for these women. I have discovered that there is a power to my action, as a Caucasian, to willfully immerse myself in a class of African American women and, without a second thought, administer to their pain. The experience of gentle touch can be more powerful than a thousand words. When the fear is released in the room, it is palpable. This wasn’t planned or expected, it was discovered.

When the program began I had no idea what the end of this journey would be, and still don’t. I do know that this work grounds me in the power of simple, fully committed gestures. It reminds me that the world is an ever-changing place, and that being creative isn’t just about getting things perfect. It shows me that how I live my life affects my work on all levels, and that it is more important to be real than it is to be correct. It shows me that courage is relative. And it opens my heart.


Dawn McMahan is the Artistic Director of Pythia, and director of Pythia’s Phoenix Rising Homeless Project. Pythia is holding a series of events at 21 Grand, 416 25th St., Oakland, titled “A Hole in the Fog”: a feast party fundraiser, with dance, music and live comedy on Sat, Sep 5, 8:30pm, tickets $25; a gallery exhibit by company members and affiliate artists Gregory Scharpen, Chelsea Pegram, Dawn McMahan, Tammy Berlin, Myles Boisen, Cheryl Leonard and Guy Poole September 3-6; a reception as part of Oakland’s Art Murmur on Friday, September 4, 7-10pm. You can learn more about the events at www.pythiadance.org.

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