The Shelter Within 

For the homeless, body awareness is a journey.

Soon after moving into a low-rent West Oakland dance studio a few years ago, Dawn McMahan realized that homeless drifters came with the territory. The makeshift space was a de facto hub for substance abusers, the mentally ill, and others with nowhere else to go. Some were intrusive; some were aggressive. Wanting to teach, dance, and practice bodywork in peace, McMahan embraced a bold plan.

"I helped them with their bodies," she remembers. Observing at close range the physiological effects of prescription medications and illegal drugs, McMahan began to engage her troubled neighbors at their own level while encouraging them, however possible, to recognize and respect their physical selves. For the Feldenkrais- and Laban Movement Analysis-trained dancer/choreographer who has performed extensively with the local butoh troupe Harupin-Ha, this turned into an unexpected mission. Having founded the Phoenix Rising Homeless Project, McMahan now teaches therapeutic movement classes at three Oakland homeless women's shelters. A September 5 fund-raiser at 21 Grand (416 25th St., Oakland) will support Phoenix Rising's expansion to more shelters throughout the East Bay.

For homeless women who have been abused or been prostitutes, "working with the body is a lot more basic and elemental than just getting food, clothing, and shelter," McMahan explains. "If you're trying to change your life around, claiming the body is a wonderful inroad to that."

Each participant in the Phoenix Rising classes — where small movements can produce "little victories," McMahan asserts — arrives with her own history. Because "they come with so many different injuries" to body and spirit, each is asked to move no more or less than she wishes, and to come and go at will. "They just need to be themselves," McMahan says. "I tell them that if they fart, that's okay." So is simply watching the session or talking about how it makes them feel.

"I'm working on healing their relationships with themselves," says McMahan, who is the artistic director of Oakland-based dance troupe Pythia. "There is a real power in discussing the body. It harkens back to when women used to sit on their front porches drinking tea or whiskey and talking about their kids and their ailments. But homeless women are really isolated in a lot of ways, and there's a huge lack of trust. Because of what they've been through, they expect to be exploited," physically and otherwise. So even the gentlest body-awareness exercise, such as assessing shoulder alignment, "can be deeply profound for them. Just getting them to lie down on the floor sometimes turns into a whole journey, and the discoveries around it are really deep."

Classically trained in ballet, McMahan has taught Cirque du Soleil aerial performers as well as wheelchair users. The fundraiser includes a lavish dinner and drinks as well as performances by Pythia, belly-dance troupe Raks Afrika, composer and sonic artist Lucio Menegon, and comedian Kelly Anneken.

"If anything, my work with the homeless is a gift back to them," McMahan beams. "Getting them to take care of themselves and their bodies is like putting water on a very thirsty plant in the desert. This is about connecting the body to the world and the self." 8:30 p.m. $25. PythiaDance.org.

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