Celebrating Differences at DANCE/Hartwell 2018
Austen Kelly took center stage at the College's annual DANCE/Hartwell production with his own choreographed dance piece, hoping to inspire others like him.
Austen Kelly, a dance major with autism, performed his own choreographed dance piece at this year’s production of DANCE/Hartwell. Kelly earned his spot among 15 other students who auditioned his choreography in DANCE/Hartwell during the adjudication process, directed by Assistant Professor of Dance Tammy Carrasco.
“My autism can make talking and listening difficult, so instead of words, I use my body to tell a story,” Kelly said. “The message I want everyone to take away from my piece is equality.”
Kelly’s composition started with a journal entry he did for a class assignment that blossomed into a performance centered on how to help others view autism and accept people with it. Cheryl Johnson, his tap instructor and adjunct professor at the College, suggested he turn his journal entry into a dance to try to communicate with his classmates. After creating the piece and auditioning for DANCE/Hartwell, Kelly took the directors' critique and strengthened his performance with help from his private dance instructor Zachary Frazee, who helped incorporate a poem Kelly’s mother put together using the original journal entry.
“I love to challenge myself to go beyond everyone’s expectations, including mine,” Kelly said. “I hope my performance leaves everyone with a positive viewpoint of me and others with disabilities.”
While taking center stage for a distinguished production can be nerve-wracking, it is nothing Kelly hasn’t faced before. He has traveled and performed with multiple choreographers in prestigious productions. These include the Rochester Fringe Festival, the Riverdance Summer Intensive, and the College’s Dime-A-Dance, on top of the many awards he’s earned for his Irish dancing across multiple competitions.
Kelly’s Irish step dancing qualified him for the Mid Atlantic Oireachtas Regionals and the World Irish Dancing Championship in both 2017 and 2018. While he enjoys winning awards and competition, Kelly says that one of his most notable achievements was performing in ON DISPLAY with his role model, Heidi Latsky, artistic director of the New York City-based Heidi Latsky Dance, as her first performer without a “visible” disability.
Richie Hare, Kelly’s friend and life coach, attributes Kelly’s success to his fearlessness in the face of challenge.
“From the beginning, I noticed Austen’s way of being and fearlessness,” Carrasco said. “Some dancers have challenges with expressing themselves and getting a message across when dancing, but Austen has the ability to fully embody his message.”
That fearlessness has only strengthened since transferring from Monroe Community College to Brockport. Kelly grew up in New Jersey and didn’t move to Rochester until 2010. After moving so he could attend the Rochester School of Arts, the decision to apply to Brockport was an easy one. Not only did the College have a strong dance and tap program, one of Kelly’s strongest areas, his older brother was also accepted.
Since then, Kelly has built relationships with many faculty members and mentors. These relationships continue to strengthen his growth as a dancer, as he isn't afraid to embrace critique from his mentors, which eventually led to his performance in DANCE/Hartwell.
“From a dance perspective, I have seen tremendous growth over the past two years,” Frazee said. “Getting into Brockport was a huge step. Even though he didn’t get in on his first attempt, after he did on his second, I saw his level of intensity for dance increase drastically.”
The future is bright for Kelly. He will continue to perform and prepare for this year’sWorld Irish Dancing Championship.
When asked what he would say to others who suffer from a disability, Kelly said “be positive and don’t be afraid to follow your dreams.”