By McKenzi Murphy
Sitting cross-legged on the floor of a vibrantly lit playroom, a little boy gleefully fiddled with a box of Mr. Potato Head toys. Flanking him on both sides, delighted at his antics, members from the Los Angeles-based contemporary dance company BODYTRAFFIC, Haley Heckethorn and Tiare Keeno, joined the little boy in his creations.
On the morning of their performance at Staller Center for the Arts on Feb. 8, Heckethorn and Keeno, along with the rest of the company, headed over to the new Stony Brook Children’s Hospital to spend time with a few of its patients. It was there, within newly painted and decorated walls lined with oceanic-themed paintings and paper mache art, that they met with and performed for about a dozen of the 40 patients.
“It’s always very rewarding to be able to give back to the community and spread the joy of dance with everyone, but especially with those who are really in need of a pick-me-up,” Jamal White, a dancer and BODYTRAFFIC’s social media manager, said. The last little girl he visited became his favorite because of her delightful laughter. While two of his colleagues went through some of their steps, she sat giggling and clapping along. “It was the cherry on top,” he said.
While the younger children seemed more interested in playing with the dancers and showing off their toys, some of the older children had an opportunity to ask the dancers questions about their work and the company, familiar territory for many of the performers. Throughout their tours, BODYTRAFFIC often goes on outreach missions. Usually, they visit schools and teach students a few of their modern moves, or go into retirement homes and work with elderly residents. However, for some of them, going into a children’s hospital proved to be a new experience.
“It’s one of my favorite experiences so far,” Heckethorn, who has been with the company for two and a half seasons, said. “It was really lovely and especially doing that on a show day, it really inspires and brings a lot of energy. We travel so often and it is really taxing, so [events] like going to a children’s hospital reminds us of why we dance and why we love it so much.”
Splitting off into smaller groups, the dancers were able to visit a few patients in their rooms where they showed off a modified version of a dance they would later perform in front of hundreds at the sold-out show at the Staller Center. A few children even joined them in learning some steps after some encouragement.
“We visited this one five-year-old,” Rachel Secrest, a dancer new to BODYTRAFFIC’s season, said. “His name was Chris and he recently had surgery and was connected to a machine which was helping him. At first, we came in and he just laughed at us as we danced. We showed him some moves, and he was giggling and nervous, but his mom was with him and got him up and out of the bed. He still has it inside of him to want to dance.”
An emotional but so very rewarding experience, getting to spend time with the children became a bright spot in an otherwise high-stress day.
“It’s tough seeing these kids who are quite sick and hooked up to different machines,” Secrest continued. “But as much as I could I was trying to really look at their faces and do what I could to make them forget their troubles for a minute. I was seeing a kid I wanted to connect with and share a dance with.”
General operating support was made possible by the New England Foundation for the Arts’ National Dance Project with funding from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. The Outreach program was coordinated by the Staller Center for the Arts, Stony Brook Children’s Hospital and BODYTRAFFIC.
Paul Newland, Outreach director at the Staller Center for the Arts said, “It was a wonderful collaboration, and we look forward to working with the Children’s Hospital again soon.”
Photos courtesy of Staller Center for the Arts