Thursday, June 20, 2019

Community as a Way of Life

When I was 26, bewildered and a bit in shock with the reality of new motherhood, I took my baby to our local Family Place, and sat around the edges of the activity, watching. Whining lines of Suzanne Vega ran through my head: "in the outskirts, and in the fringes, on the edge and off the avenue"... as my baby nursed his way through the stress of a new situation. Out of the fray of mothers and toddlers and snack foods and plastic dishes came the most welcoming smile. This woman actually held out her arm to me, beckoning me to join the group. And Mara became my friend.
Years later, as we sat around her trailer home together, watching our kids play and leap from the furniture, I complained about my back issues, and Mara deftly used the opportunity to attempt to convince me to take the adults' ballet class that she taught in the evenings. I told her 'no way'. I explained that ballet left me behind when I was nine and had a pot belly and knees that didn't straighten all the way. She convinced me anyway, and next term I cautiously and inelegantly stepped into her class. 
Mara Brenner with students of Gabriola Dance, 2019. Photo by Inspired Spirits Photography.
Mara doesn't just teach ballet. She's an accredited Pilates instructor, and a passionate life-long-learner of human anatomy and movement. She looked at me while I attempted the ballet moves and explained exactly what my muscles and bones were doing and how I could optimize for my personal development. When she didn't have an answer, she went away and researched or thought about it until she figured it out (yes - that's the definition of being a life-long-learner, and an expert!) She sees people not only as moving, learning bodies, but as humans with struggles and opportunities. I soon became one of Mara's 'Tequilarinas' - the group of adults who danced until 9pm and then went for a tequila at the pub, together. After a year, my back was healed. I started wearing superhero costumes to ballet.
Through her friendship, clear strong vision, and unflinching determination, Mara gave me more confidence and opportunity than any other teacher I've had.
Gabriola Dance year end showcase, 2019: The Giving Tree. Photo by Inspired Spirits Photography.
Mara Brenner taught our island's children and adults ballet, and also used her company MaraGold Productions to bring world class artists to perform not only on our small island, but at various Canadian venues. She worked her dancing feet off one hundred percent of the time, not just giving to her community, but building it. She exemplified a kind of character strength and courage that's hard to maintain, but essential in a thriving community. Eventually her community turned its back on Mara and her family.
Our land use bylaw only allows trailer-living for a brief period of time while landowners are building a permanent dwelling. As you can imagine, building a home on the wages of a ballet teacher and a glazier, while also raising two young children, takes longer than it otherwise might. Mara and her partner, Stu, lived in a trailer on land they owned, while slowly building their permanent home. At the point they were forced to leave, they had only built the foundation. Theirs was almost an idealist story of dreamy island living, until our snooty bylaws pushed them out.
Gabriola Dance year end showcase, 2019: The Giving Tree. Photo by Inspired Spirits Photography.
So they left! Mara and her family found their new home on Gabriola Island, and quickly turned the small outbuilding into a dance studio. Around the same time she was gifted her own ballet teacher's extensive collection of ballet school costumes, and she threw all her extensive skill and passion into Gabriola Dance. Last weekend I went to see her year-end showcase, and I was moved to write this article.
Gabriola Dance year end showcase, 2019: The Giving Tree. Photo by Inspired Spirits Photography.
Finally with a permanent roof over her head on Gabriola, Mara pulled everything out of her heart and poured it into ten years of parenting and teaching in her new community. This 10th showcase felt to me like watching my friend stitch up all her passions and skills into one beautiful, powerful package. It was in many ways her gift to the world. 
Gabriola Dance year end showcase, 2019: The Giving Tree. Photo by Inspired Spirits Photography.
I think we all hope we can make a difference in the world - at least leave it a slightly better place than we found it. These days many of us are just hoping we save enough of the world that our children will grow old before it's gone. So Mara developed a dance performance of Shel Silverstein's 'The Giving Tree'. The piece brings together students of many diverse ages and training levels. It's profound and moving, but Mara didn't leave it at that. Working on this project brought up a great deal of conversation among students about climate change, and it became clear that she needed to deal with the prevalent angst and anxiety that today's children harbour around this topic. So she had all the conversations with them, and at the end of the dance showcase, she hosted a talk back with biologist Melanie Mamoser and registered clinical counsellor Caitlin Kopperson, to discuss the affects of climate change on childhood anxiety. One of the most urgent questions, of course, is 'what can we do?', and although there's no clear answer to that, there were some good ideas, and the conversation at least left me feeling hopeful that people were talking about it, and that children's voices are being heard in this discussion.
Gabriola Dance year end showcase, 2019: The Giving Tree. Photo by Inspired Spirits Photography.
With The Giving Tree, Mara does something I hope we all manage to do in our lives: She orchestrates her many gifts into one grand oeuvre, showcasing not only the work of her students and other community members, but pulling them all together in a kind of hopeful community invocation. May we all have the courage to live our hearts' dreams and create a better world in doing so, each in our own ways, and all within community.
Gabriola Dance year end showcase, 2019: The Giving Tree. Photo by Inspired Spirits Photography.
Resources:
Gabriola Pilates and Dance: http://maragoldtheatreproductions.blogspot.com/p/dance.html
Inspired Spirits Photography: https://www.inspiredspiritsphotography.ca/

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