From Boise

Open arms, open hearts

Published about 2 years ago • 6 min read

Clear your calendars for next Thursday evening, April 28. Open Arms Dance Project is set to take the Morrison Center stage for an incredible performance that you won't want to miss.

Open Arms Dance Project is a multi-generational and inclusive dance company located right here in Boise, Idaho. It's a nonprofit, a family, and a modern dance company that was born out of love, anger, advocacy, and an opportunity.

Photo by Ted Harmon. Source: Open Arms Dance Project

The Beginning

Megan Brandel is the founder and artistic director of Open Arms Dance Project. She grew up in Idaho and has always loved to dance. She hopped around a few colleges before landing at the University of Colorado studying elementary education and dance. Megan was in the depths of college when her dad was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), a progressive nervous system disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord and impacts physical function.

Her dad insisted she stay in school. She did as he wished, but she visited her family often. She spent time with her parents and played checkers with her dad, all the while she watched her dad’s entire life transitioning in real time.

“Specific to Lou Gehrig's disease, from somebody having an able body and then transitioning to using a walker, then a wheelchair, and seeing how the world treats them differently… that was just shocking to me,” said Megan.

Photo by Ted Harmon. Source: Open Arms Dance Project.

The experience completely shifted Megan's perspective on how people with disabilities are treated by those without. After her dad passed away, she grieved for a long time. She eventually moved back to Boise and taught adaptive dance classes. And while she loved it, she wanted more. When the World Special Olympics came to Boise, Megan saw an opportunity. She envisioned dancers with and without disabilities sharing a stage, creating a powerful performance that could shift the perspective of people without disabilities. Little did she know, that performance was just the beginning.

“Open Arms is so much more than that now, though. It’s beautiful,” said Megan. “What's grown out of that place of, well, anger, really, at how my dad was treated with less respect once he had a clear, visible disability. Now is this amazing thing that's gone on for 13 years.”

Photo by Ted Harmon. Source: Open Arms Dance Project.

The Evolution

After the World Special Olympics performance, Open Arms came to a crossroads. Without a high-profile performance on the horizon, a lot of the dancers without disabilities left. Considering her options, Megan remembered dancing a performance with a multigenerational group in Denver while attending college. She thought that might be the way to go.

“It just made it more inclusive, which I loved,” said Megan. “So, it's not just about disability now, but it's about representing people of various ages and abilities, and celebrating people who are older or usually don't get to appear on stage.”

Photo by Ted Harmon. Source: Open Arms Dance Project.

These days, Open Arms Dance Project has 19 dancers. That number has gone up and down over the years, but 19 seems to be the sweet spot. Open Arms dancers are ages 7 to 76, with and without disabilities. Each season brings one or two new dancers, but the core group stays the same. The company rehearses and performs September through May and usually has about five performances each season. Every performance that Open Arms Dance Project does is unique. While Megan leads the choreography, every dancer contributes.

“The group is large and that itself is a challenge – to make sure everybody's seen and to make something that is intriguing and dynamic for people to watch. And then everybody's various abilities,” said Megan.

Photo by Ted Harmon. Source: Open Arms Dance Project

“One thing I do is make groupings of people that have somebody who can remember the choreography, somebody who is very compassionate and aware of what the other people in the group need, and I usually put somebody young and somebody old in a group,” said Megan.

Each group is given an assignment to create their part of the performance. They function like little communities within the larger company, working together closely as a small group that eventually weaves into and contributes to the larger performance.

“This is the co-creative part like that is really important to me,” said Megan. “To give them an assignment so they actually create the movement, and it's an expression of them, rather than me.”

The resulting performance is powerful, to say the very least.

“I really believe that that's where the power in our performance comes from. We are not physically virtuosic – we don't leap and spin and do all these really wonderful dance moves that I also love to watch. But I feel like we do those things with our hearts, you know? And our connection on stage,” said Megan. “We often make people cry. We don't mean to, but I think it’s just that their hearts are opened. Like look at these beautiful people with these bodies that are imperfect. They're making art that is, you know, impacting me.”

Photo by Ted Harmon. Source: Open Arms Dance Project

The impact is even deeper for Open Arms dancers. They function and feel more like a family on a mission to share their love of dance with the world.

That is true for Heather Marie, an Open Arms dancer who found a sense of community and connection when she joined the company six years ago.

“I love Open Arms so much because it's given me a sense of family and a sense of friendships that I never had before coming to something like this,” said Heather. “And being with a disability, like, I never thought I would be able to dance or do anything like this. Just because of my disability.”

When Heather moved to Idaho, she started doing adaptive dance classes at Fort Boise. Some of the other dancers’ parents kept telling her she should check out Open Arms Dance Project. Eventually she made room in her schedule to see what it was all about.

“[Open Arms] led to my ability to be able to love dance and showcase it to everybody,” said Heather. “I think it's important to show that love of dance to everyone. Because everybody deserves the ability to love dance, no matter what. If you have a disability or not, you should have the ability to love dance. And I'm just happy that I get to express that with Open Arms every week.”

Photo by Ted Harmon. Source: Open Arms Dance Project.

Alice Brown started dancing with Open Arms nearly four years ago. She’s also found a sense of family and friendship, but also a place of safety and support.

“I got severely bullied at school and it feels good to know that people care about me and love me because no one did care about me at that moment, except my family,” said Alice. “Sports and school was like, so awful. So, having [Open Arms] I felt so happy and loved, you know? I think that was something that helped a lot – to feel loved.”


Open Arms Dance Project will perform THREADS on Thursday, April 28 at the Morrison Center. The performance is actually multiple performances the company has done this season, woven together into their longest performance yet.

This season, the company split into two groups, which is not typically how it goes. Half of the company did a collaboration with internationally-known disabled composer Molly Joyce at Surel’s Place and the other half did a residency at LED. Now, they've come together to put it all into one amazing performance.

Source: Open Arms Dance Project

THREADS will feature live dance performances from Open Arms Dance Project, original live music from the Afrosonics, other local musicians, and internationally-known disabled composer Molly Joyce. Open Arms Dance Project will also be sharing their two award-winning films and premier a mini documentary, Upstanders with Open Arms, which is part of an anti-bullying outreach program that the dance company is involved in.

People of ages and abilities are invited to see the performance. The performance is at the Morrison Center and will have ASL interpretation, increased wheelchair accessible seating, captions for live dance and films, a poetic audio description for film, and discounted ticket options for people with disabilities.

There will be two performances of THREADS on Thursday, April 28. There is a free performance for schools at 12:30pm and a public performance at 7pm. Tickets for the 7pm show are $5-$20 and can be purchased here.

Open Arms Dance Project's mission is to create greater joy and compassion with dance that opens hearts, minds and arms. Come see what it's all about <3

Thanks for reading! Hope to see you at the show next Thurs!

With love from Boise,


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From Boise

by Marissa Lovell

A weekly newsletter & podcast about what's going on in Boise, Idaho. Every week we share stories about people, places, history, and happenings in Boise.

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