A special performance

May 21, 2013

Madrid, Spain

By Susana Vera

Luismi Astorga clasps his hands as he lifts his head up to the sky. He’s waiting to take the stage at a music club in Madrid where his dance group, Fusionarte, is taking part in a charity gala.

Astorga closes his eyes and begins to pray. The click of my camera breaks his concentration and he smiles at me as he proceeds to tell me, “Waiting makes me nervous.”

It’s not the first time Astorga has faced the thrill of performing for a live audience. He has been dancing with Fusionarte since Argentine choreographer and dancer Pau Vazquez formed the group six years ago with the aim of introducing dance to people with special needs.

Around 20 adult men and women with different intellectual disabilities make up the group. They rehearse every Saturday for an hour and occasionally they perform.

“The galas are the highlight for all of them. Many times we perform at places that are not really fit for dancing, but (that) does not matter to them. They feel special on any stage,” Vazquez says.

This show was one of the many Astorga has participated in, but experience never fully beats his anxiety. The waiting room next to the stage was packed with other members of the group as well as other performers in the gala. A man dressed as the Genie from Aladdin walked past us and sat nearby. “You have to ask for a wish,” Astorga told me. “Mine is to become a professional dancer to dance with famous people,” he added.

As I was thinking of my own wish, the squeaking sound of a door opening emanated from the speakers and Jaime Saez, Jose Maria Matamoros and Pablo Ruiz Larrea jumped on the stage. It was “Thriller” time.

Despite some coordination problems, the trio won the audience’s hearts. The smiles they wore throughout the whole performance made up for any mistakes. Michael Jackson would have approved.

Having a good time and showing people what they are capable of doing was the group’s goal – they were not really after perfection. Vazquez is the driving force behind Fusionarte. She put it together to provide its members with an option for leisure and art that they are frequently denied in mainstream society.

Three other instructors help her in this endeavor. They all have learned to cater to the needs of each individual and make do with little, since they get no subsidies. They rent a dance studio weekly for seven euros an hour and pay for the clothes or props when they perform at galas like this one.

Whitney Houston, flamenco, rap, and salsa followed before the group’s grand finale: the Little Mermaid’s “Under the Sea” song. The Fusionarte dancers held their noses as if they were underwater and moved their legs and arms like mermaids. The stage was so small that they could barely fit, let alone dance. But the lack of space did not seem to bother them. They gave it all they had.

The sight of the dancers feeling so empowered on the stage made me think of my own 65-year-old uncle, Toni, who also has an intellectual disability. I wonder how different his life might have been had he been exposed to experiences like Fusionarte early on. Would he have been better prepared to articulate feelings and emotions? Probably. Would he have dreamed of being a professional dancer like Astorga? Who knows. But I bet he would have gotten a kick out of wearing a fedora hat like Michael Jackson’s. He loves to dress smart.

With the sound of the last note, all the dancers held hands and bowed their heads. Luismi Astorga took the microphone from the hands of a teary-eyed Lorena Torres, one of the instructors, and started a long list of thank-yous with a special one for Pau Vazquez, who had checked into a hospital that afternoon to give birth to her first child.

When the speech was over, the dancers left the stage accompanied by the cheers of their devoted audience. “How did we do?” Astorga asked me. “You rocked,” I replied. And he gave me a heartfelt hug.

No one felt more special that afternoon than me.

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