Forward Motion Festival more than spotlighting dancers with disabilities, founder says

Written By Guillermo Perez
March 18, 2024 at 5:02 PM

“In Your Shoes” by Karen Peterson Corash with Adam Eckstat, Sun Young Park, Marjorie Burnett, and Narieka Rose Masla will be featured in the fifth edition of the Forward Motion Dance Festival performances on Saturday, March 23 at the Miami Dade County Auditorium. (Photo by Pilar Andujar, courtesy of Karen Peterson Dancers).

Moving forward is something dancer, choreographer, and organizer Karen Peterson, a significant presence on the South Florida arts scene for over thirty years, knows a lot about. Her creative vision and vigor set in the right direction, she advances her art form. And that resolve to get around obstacles and reach a goal, not just as artistic motor but as a requirement of daily life, also goes for participants in Peterson’s on-going project, the Forward Motion Dance Festival and Conference of Physically Integrated Dance.

A yearly event, in its fifth edition, comes to Miami-Dade County Auditorium for performances on  Saturday, March 23 and Miami Dade College Koubek Center for workshops on Sunday, March 24.

Julie Crothers will dance an excerpt from a longer piece called “Secondhand,” which explores self-knowledge in relation to prosthetic arms. (Photo courtesy of Karen Peterson Dancers)

Every year brings new lessons for Peterson and confirms the value of putting in people with disabilities in the spotlight. Now, as her purpose evolves, she wants to facilitate original creations by members of that community. “I think this kind of dance has brought me to understand people better—how rigorously they have to lead their lives,” she says. “Like any of us, folks with mobility challenges want to be creative, as individuals and collaboratively.” And that calls for them to be both fervently physical and unencumbered in their imaginations.

“When I started doing this work,” says Peterson, “I thought it had a big message—more than contemporary dance. Yes, I still love modern dancers who can move with so much prowess. But I feel there has to be more than that.”

She feels the extra in physically integrated dance (though labels vary, physically integrated dance covers a range of non-normative mobility in choreography and interpretation, often but not exclusively featuring wheelchairs and other aids) involves an expansion of aesthetic possibilities and their impact on spectators.

“I believe this hits audiences in ways they’re not even conscious of,” declares Peterson.

Karen Peterson Corash, artistic director of Karen Peterson Dancers and the founder and choreographic contributor of Forward Motion.(Photo courtesy of Karime Arabia)

The founder and choreographic contributor of Forward Motion, with her group Karen Peterson Dancers (KPD features variously-mobile performers), has brought international attention to this event, putting on stage renowned PID troupes such as Oakland-based AXIS—which dates back to 1987—and Candoco from England, where this movement originated in the late ‘60s. But this time out her focus has shifted to emerging independent artists, highlighted as “New Voices, New Dance Makers.”

“The larger dance groups more readily get funding,” says Peterson, “so I really wanted to give younger talent a chance.” And she wished to draw in creators who themselves have some sort of disability. A number of PID choreographers such as herself and the pioneering, all-around advocate Victoria Marks (last festival’s luminary) have advanced the field but are not disabled themselves.

“I got a lot of response from very qualified artists,” says Peterson, enthused by a program featuring four Miami premieres, including three choreographers with disabilities and more participants who use wheelchairs.

“In Your Shoes” by Karen Peterson Corash with Narieka Rose Masla, Adam Eckstat, Sun Young Park, and Marjorie Burnett (Photo by Pilar Andujar, courtesy of Karen Peterson Dancers)

Along with Peterson’s group, in her collaborative “In Your Shoes,” the headliners include Julie Crothers, from the San Francisco Bay area, and Mark Travis Rivera, who grew up in Paterson, New Jersey, and now resides in Atlanta. Born in Miami, he considers this his forever home, with Wynwood—pre-gentrification, he wryly notes—his first ground for discoveries as a child with cerebral palsy.

On the evening program an excerpt from Crothers’ 2018 “Secondhand” explores her self-knowledge in relation to prosthetic arms. In the afternoon this fluid dancer will blend her set choreography with improvised movement (“I love that kind of thrill, she confesses), interacting with The Spirit of the Goodwill Band, the performing unit of a nearly 40-year-old music program, headquartered in Allapattah, for gifted individuals with various physical and mental disabilities. KPD will perform to their live jazz and pop sounds in the earlier show and then use recordings at night.

Rivera, an accomplished writer and dedicated storyteller—“that’s a common thread in all I do,” he says—unfolds antecedents in “remembrance,” a new trio which includes former KPD dancer Jesus Vidal, recognized in Dance Magazine for his captivating stage presence.

An intriguing addition to the lineup will be Latin dance ballroom champions from Poland Pawel Karpinski and Magdalena Matusiak. Together they’ll display sleek skills in wheelchair-partnering to catchy beats in “Different Shades of Dance,” and then each goes solo for his “Dirty Dance” and her “Warrior.”

Though both Rivera and Crothers identify as queer artists in PID, their range defies facile categorization—and such diversity is something Peterson celebrates. As a gender non-conforming artist of Puerto Rican heritage, Rivera insists, “I don’t allow anyone to put me in a box. I create work about a lot of different topics informed by my lived experience. Authenticity is a daily choice, and every day I choose to be seen and heard for who I am, no longer trying to people-please and mask up for approval.”

For Rivera, “There’s power in learning to embrace our stories—the good, bad, and messy parts that make us who we are—to create a more inclusive world.”

That respect for individual journeys informs the content of his creations as much as the process in their making. While bringing narrative, thematic and musical ideas into the studio, Rivera still likes “working with the dancers to develop movement vocabulary. My ideal environment is one of mutual respect for the craft and the people in the space. (One) that fosters trust and vulnerability.” As a champion of emotion, he adds, “A dancer can only truly commit to what I’m asking of them if they feel safe enough to use their voice and feel genuinely supported.”

Born in Miami’s Wynwood neighborhood, Mark Travis Rivera, grew up in Paterson, New Jersey, and now resides in Atlanta. He’s a guest choreographer for this year’s Forward Motion Festival. (Photo courtesy of Karen Peterson Dancers)

All that coalesces in “remembrance,” harking back to the choreographer’s mother “fleeing from Miami” and his ensuing search for a sense of home, with a conjuring of early childhood impressions as he returns to a transformed Wynwood. “My greatest hope for this,” says Rivera, “is that people feel moved to reflect on the moments that defined who they would become.”

Crothers likewise plumbs autobiography, with an eye on the relevance of personal evolution, with her intimacies as windows into our shared humanity. “Coming into my identity and feeling confident about my queerness, is unpacked in my work,” she explains, aiming for this to “blossom into entry points for different kinds of people.”

Not wanting “to have labels pasted over my body,” the artist admits these can both be frustrating and open up opportunities, which have included her dancing with Axis as someone—diligently trained and terrifically talented—born with one and a half arms. Sometimes that’s been a determinant in her career, sometimes it hasn’t. “I can kind of flip-flop, and I think it’s cool.”

But having worn a prosthesis until her early 20s, discarded in stages, does power to “Secondhand.” And this allows for her targeted use of humor, which she calls an “incredibly potent tool—to relax people and get to the hard stuff, helping them connect both to me as a performer and to each other.”  And that objective puts her fully in the spirit of the festival.

WHAT:  Forward Motion Dance Festival and Conference of Physically Integrated  Dance

WHEN: 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 23

WHERE: Miami-Dade County Auditorium, 2901 West Flagler St., Miami; workshops will be held from noon to 6 p.m. Sunday, March 24 at Miami Dade College Koubek Center, 2705 SW 3rd St., Miami.

COST:  $20-$25

INFORMATION: 305-298-5878 or is a nonprofit media source for the arts featuring fresh and original stories by writers dedicated to theater, dance, visual arts, film, music and more. Dont miss a story at



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