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DVP Interview: Bonnie Lewkowicz and Judith Smith

Bonnie Lewkowicz interviewed Judith Smith. for the Disability Visibility Project™ at StoryCorps San Francisco on September 6, 2014. In this clip, Bonnie Lewkowicz talks with Judith Smith about the creation of AXIS Dance Company, a contemporary dance company specializing in integrated work with dancers of all abilities. Judith and Bonnie talk about the social and political implications of doing this type of dance. Both discuss the challenges of traveling by strange and sometimes inaccessible means with the company for shows abroad. Both describe their work as a passion and activism. Bonnie and Judith share moments of impact both for them and audience members in creating and viewing their integrated dances.

Text Transcript:


Bonnie Lefkowitz: My name is Bonnie Lefkowitz. I am 57 years young. Today is September 6th, 2014. I am in the San Francisco Public Library and I am not related to Judith my blood but we are sisters and we also have worked together with AXIS for many, many, many, many, many years, and we’re friends.
Judith Smith: My name is Judith Smith. I’m 54. It is September 6th, 1914. No. 2014. Oh gosh. We better start over. I am also in the San Francisco Public Library. I’ve known Bonnie for about 27 years. We’re partners in crime in the creation of AXIS Dance Company.
Bonnie Lefkowitz: Here we are Judy. Twenty-seven years later and still friends. I think our lives would have … Our paths would have crossed regardless of whether we had come together on that one fateful day where we both showed up for, well, I didn’t really know what I was showing up for other than to explore dancing with people. That in and of itself wouldn’t be that unusual for people to come together to dance. Because we both use wheelchairs, it was not something I thought would be happening.
Judith Smith: Yeah.
Bonnie Lefkowitz: Wow. What a journey it’s been.
Judith Smith: It has been. I think it was more unusual for me because you at least had a dance background and I didn’t.
Bonnie Lefkowitz: Yes. Why don’t you talk a little bit about your background?
Judith Smith: I grew up in Colorado. I thought I was going to spend my life showing jumping horses. I was injured in a car accident when I was 17. I found my way to Berkeley California and started exploring all sorts of different things including martial arts which is what led me to AXIS, A-X-I-S, Dance Company.
Bonnie Lefkowitz: As you said, I did have a dance background. Any little kid knows what they want to be when they’re growing up. I thought that’s what I wanted to be with, a dancer. I wanted to be on Broadway. I studied dance for many years. Ten years. Then I also, as you know, broke my neck in a dune buggy accident and thought dance was never going to be a part of my life even though it was still a big part of who I was. I really thought those days were over. I explored sports because I was a very physical person. When I got that phone call that one day unbeknownst to the person on the other of the call, asking me if I wanted to come check out this group of people getting together to explore how people with and without disabilities could dance. My first thought was, well, they can’t. It intrigued me and so I thought, “Let’s check this out.” I was hooked immediately as I think you were too.
Judith Smith: I think we all were. Yeah.
Bonnie Lefkowitz: Who could have ever guessed or imagined that AXIS would be what it is today? Maybe we should talk a little bit about our beginning days. Some of the things that stand out for me is that when we first got together, of course, it wasn’t to create a dance company, but it was just to explore what …
Judith Smith: To make one dance piece.
Bonnie Lefkowitz: To make a particular dance piece.
Judith Smith: Mm-hmm(affirmative).
Bonnie Lefkowitz: We’ve talked about this in the beginning years was, “Okay. Were people giving us the standing ovation because what they saw was really great or was it because, ‘Oh, look at those brave people up there. I could never get up on stage and do that if I looked like them.'” That was a big question I think that ran through our minds for a few years. I think we decided that it was we were creating good art. I think that was always the focus of AXIS. It was never to go out and make any kind of statement, political statement but just the fact of who we were, what our makeup was, people with and without disabilities, it made a statement without hammering it over people’s heads.
Judith Smith: Yeah. I think it didn’t really occur to us that there was a social-political implication to what we were doing until we started doing it. The dance community really loved what we were doing right away and so did the disability community. The reason we kept going was because people kept asking us to make work for this event or that event. Then people asked us where they could go learn to do this and we didn’t have anywhere to send them. We started with the monthly dance gym, which led into weekly classes and now, our dance access education program which is about probably 40 to 50% of what we spend our time going in a given year.
Bonnie Lefkowitz: Yeah. I think we’re unique in that regard. It’s allowed us to get funding in ways that other dance companies can’t access because of our educational component.
Judith Smith: Yeah. Definitely. The artistic and the education of really grown up and supported each other from the very beginning.
Bonnie Lefkowitz: I think another thing that was surprising was that here you are somewhat isolated in your own little group of people and thinking that what you’re doing is so unique and then you learn that there’s people in other parts of the world that are doing the same thing or trying to … Doing the same things.
Judith Smith: This is before the internet so we just couldn’t go online and Google it. We really started finding out about each other by accident. We found out that there was a company in Germany and then we went to Germany to work with that company and found out there was stuff happening in Brazil and in Israel.
Bonnie Lefkowitz: I’ll never forget the story about you in Germany being locked in the closet with a skeleton.
Judith Smith: The broom closet. Yes. Yeah.
Speaker 1: Can you tell that story?
Judith Smith: We were at the University of Cologne and we were getting ready for a dance performance. Ties and I, Ties Maser was our first artistic director who actually started the company, we had this closet to change in because the dressing rooms weren’t accessible. We went in and turned on the light, closed the door, turned around and there was a skeleton hanging in the corner and the door locked. We were stuck in Germany in a broom closet with a skeleton. Yeah. Anyway, well, we did bang loud enough that somebody figured out there were people in the broom closet. They let us out but yeah, that was a little bit of a sane …
Bonnie Lefkowitz: I think we have lots of those stories. Another one of my favorites was Siberia.
Judith Smith: Getting chased by the feral dogs across the tarmac.
Bonnie Lefkowitz: That was such a surreal experience after flying for 36 hours.
Judith Smith: Yeah.
Bonnie Lefkowitz: I felt like I was in a Fellini movie.
Judith Smith: It was a Fellini movie.
Bonnie Lefkowitz: Do you want to go over some of the things that happened?
Judith Smith: We got separated from our non-disabled dancers.
Bonnie Lefkowitz: Plus our passport’s taken.
Judith Smith: Our passport’s taken and we got taken into-
Bonnie Lefkowitz: Our interpretor take.
Judith Smith: -yes, into this room with this big Russian nurse because disability is equated to being unhealthy in Russia.
Bonnie Lefkowitz: We called the nurse Ratchet.
Judith Smith: Yeah. She brought out this blood pressure cup and we thought, “She’s going to check our blood pressure?” Then now these Russian men came in … I think that they were fairly looped.
Bonnie Lefkowitz: Reeking of alcohol.
Judith Smith: Of vodka. She takes our blood pressure and we’re looking at them and looking at ourselves and we’re in these … We weren’t even in our wheelchairs. We were in those aisle chair things. Anyway, it ended up that she took our blood pressure and then they took us in our little rolling whatever they were, high chairs, and they start rolling us across the tarmac and we’re getting chased by feral dogs. Then they roll us to this plane and we’re just hoping to God it’s the right plane to get from Moscow to Siberia to Novosibirsk. They pick us up and they toss us to somebody else and he runs up the stairs and tosses us to another person who tosses us at our seat. Oh my God. It was so hysterical. We’re laughing our heads off and we’re like sprawled in these seats.
Bonnie Lefkowitz: There was no one else on them. Not even any stewardess.
Judith Smith: No one else on the plane. We don’t even know if we’re on the right plane.
Bonnie Lefkowitz: We wait for probably about a half an hour and who pulls up in a Mercedes Truck? These cushy little trucks. I remember the rest of the passengers.
Judith Smith: All of the rest of the passengers. Yeah.
Bonnie Lefkowitz: Yeah.
Judith Smith: Traveling with a disability in the 90s in Russia.
Bonnie Lefkowitz: They were where we were in Novosibirsk as well, they said that they only had one motorized wheelchair in the whole country or the whole area. I’m not sure what it was. To charge your wheelchair …
Judith Smith: My battery charger, the transformer blew up. We had to take the batteries out of my chair and stick them in this Fiat and they drive them around in the Fiat all day. We’d switch batteries the next day. That was a scene. We were also staying at the eye microsurgery clinic which was outside of town and everybody knew who the Amerikanski were because we were the only ones that didn’t have eye patches on at dinner.
Bonnie Lefkowitz: Booties.
Judith Smith: Booties. Yeah. There was a machine gun wielding.
Bonnie Lefkowitz: Bayonet.
Judith Smith: Yeah. It did have a bayonet on it, didn’t it?
Bonnie Lefkowitz: Yeah. It did.
Judith Smith: Guard that was at the door that we had to check in with all the time. I do remember when we got there, I had looked at you and I said, “Where is the cuckoo clock?” There are cuckoo birds there. They go pretty much 24 hours a day because in the summer it doesn’t really get dark. Anyway, we’re digressing.
Bonnie Lefkowitz: I know but I just have to mention about the stage. We were at the Railroad Theater.
Judith Smith: It was railroad ties.
Bonnie Lefkowitz: It was actually railroad ties.
Judith Smith: Yeah.
Bonnie Lefkowitz: It was really bumpy.
Judith Smith: It was bumpy.
Bonnie Lefkowitz: It also speaks to the numerous situations that we found ourselves in and never knew what to expect.
Judith Smith: This is before the ADA, the Americans with Disabilities Act. The performing arts world is still pretty far behind in terms of access and inclusion. It definitely was back then … We got cattle truck lifted onto that one stage and San Rafael. Thank God they had a cattle truck available. The broom closet in Germany and then the adventures in flying and charging wheelchairs in Russia, and the motorcycle ramp down in San Luis Obispo. Remember that? To get up on that stage.
Bonnie Lefkowitz: Right. Then there was also the issue of … I don’t think the general population realizes what it entails when you travel with mobility equipment and not knowing whether your chair was going to get there in one piece which there were times when it didn’t.
Judith Smith: Yeah. The Olympics Arts Festival in Salt Lake when Delta dropped my chair out of the airplane.
Bonnie Lefkowitz: It went splat.
Judith Smith: Luckily we were practically in the same timezone so Megan ground shipped her chair. I was dancing in Megan’s chair. Nadi was dancing in my second chair. It’s like dancing in somebody else’s army boots.
Bonnie Lefkowitz: Right. That’s when we were in Boston.
Judith Smith: The van caught on fire.
Bonnie Lefkowitz: That’s another story but I was thinking of my chair breaking. It was a manual chair at the time. We were doing a really, really challenging piece with Bill T. Jones.
Judith Smith: By Bill T.
Bonnie Lefkowitz: My chair broke and he said, “Well, just do it in another chair,” and I’m like, “Doesn’t quite work that way.”
Judith Smith: Iva ran all over in a taxi getting your chair welded.
Bonnie Lefkowitz: Yeah. Yes, she did. Let’s go back a little bit to our formative years.
Judith Smith: Mm-hmm(affirmative).
Bonnie Lefkowitz: We did this out of love because we did not get paid for this.
Judith Smith: No. We paid to do it-
Bonnie Lefkowitz: Right.
Judith Smith: -mostly.
Bonnie Lefkowitz: It really consumed our lives. It still does. I’ve stepped back quite a bit. Why did we do it so long ad so passionately? What do you think was the driving force?
Judith Smith: I think we loved what we were doing and I know that for me, I didn’t grow up being an activist or in a family of activist but I think becoming disabled, you learn to be an activist or you’re trained into it. You definitely have to learn to be an advocate.
Bonnie Lefkowitz: You sit at home and do nothing.
Judith Smith: Yeah. I think the fact that we were able to do something that we loved, that was art, that other people loved having us do, for me, it does have a social relevance. I feel like the work is still relevant. It’s important work. The first 10 years were really just figuring out even how to talk about this work and that it was happening all over the world. That cosmic web of consciousness of ideas popping up all over at the same time. As we learned about other people and connecting with them and doing the International Wheelchair Dance Festival in Boston with Dance Umbrella …
Bonnie Lefkowitz: What year was that? I know you’re really good with dates.
Judith Smith: 1997 when we brought 14 companies from around the world. None of us had ever been around another company like that. That was just really exciting. I think just also being a driven for me and really knowing that this work could change the face of dance and change the face of disability. That it was impacting people and it was changing minds. We didn’t have to get up on a soap box and tell somebody how they should think or feel about ability or dance or disability or collaboration. They could just watch us for 90 minutes and go away with their own conclusions.
Bonnie Lefkowitz: That festival brought up the whole issue to what do we call this work. I don’t know. Do you think there’s still some … Are you satisfied with the term that AXIS came up with, physically integrated dance?
Judith Smith: That term physically integrated dance came out of Europe, out of the UK. I think it’s better than mixed ability, which I think some of them are good and some of them really aren’t. I’m not even going to mention some of the other things that people call this form of dance. Integrated has so many different context now whether it’s racial or ethnic integration or technology. I don’t think it’s perfect and the way we describe ourselves now, we’re a contemporary dance company doing physically integrated work. It would be great if we didn’t have to have labels but I think without labels and without images-
Bonnie Lefkowitz: Images. Yeah.
Judith Smith: -I do feel like this kind of dance is not like ballet. You can’t just close your eyes and conjure up an image. Bonnie and I both have had the experience of having somebody say, “Bonnie, what do you do,” and Bonnie says …
Bonnie Lefkowitz: I dance.
Judith Smith: They say, “You can walk?”
Bonnie Lefkowitz: Right. “You get out of your chair?” It’s the deer and the headlights.
Judith Smith: The might goes blank.
Bonnie Lefkowitz: I remember that one stewardess or … I guess they don’t call them stewardesses anymore. Flight attendant.
Judith Smith: Flight attendant.
Bonnie Lefkowitz: We were on the Jetway and-
Judith Smith: In San Jose going to Boston.
Bonnie Lefkowitz: -she asked, “Are you going to a conference or something,” and we said, “We’re dancers. We’re going to a performance.” She just started laughing.
Judith Smith: She started laughing hysterically.
Bonnie Lefkowitz: “No. No. No. Really. What are you doing?”
Judith Smith: We’re a dance company.
Bonnie Lefkowitz: Yeah. That was …
Judith Smith: That was funny and then we got off the plane in Boston. Jeremey Aleger, who was our presenter manager and he happened to know her … Remember that?
Bonnie Lefkowitz: I don’t remember that part.
Judith Smith: She went, “Jeremy, what are you doing?” He said, “I’m picking up AXIS Dance Company.” She just … I think she got it at that point. Yeah.
Bonnie Lefkowitz: There’s probably still some people today but I know in our beginning stages some people would call what we were doing therapy.
Judith Smith: I think the work was really young at the time. We weren’t doing what we’re doing today. There’s definitely been an evolution in the company of the kind of work we’re doing and when we shifted gears in 97 after 10 years of doing all of our work collaboratively from within the company and started commissioning works from Bill T. Jones and Joe Good, Anne Carlson, Victoria Marks, David Dorfman, all of these incredible choreographers and music by Jones John Reno and Meredith Monk, I think that the work grew up at that point and really evolved. I think it was definitely when people started taking us more seriously and it gave people who were dance goers and dance critiques a lens and a context because instead of reviewing the work based on just what they knew about us or what they saw, they could review from the context of what they knew about Bill T’s work or Steven Patronio’s work or Joe Good’s work. It gave them I think a different way into the work also. I think presenters started to take notice. It was a good strategy for us.
For me, it was a very selfish strategy because I wanted to learn from these people. As a disabled dancer,-
Bonnie Lefkowitz: We were bored.
Judith Smith: -we were bored and we were recycling stuff. We were just putting the same moves in a different order which I think some companies today are still doing that. I do feel like it was selfish and that I wanted to learn from these people. As I started to say, as a disabled dancer, it’s still not that easy to go out into the community and take dance. The less disabled you are, the easier it is. When you have a really significant disability like Bonnie and I do, most teachers just want to run screaming out the back door. The more people that we bring in to work with us, the more people that aren’t going to be freaked out if someone shows up in their class or in an audition.
Bonnie Lefkowitz: I just had a thought because … As you know, I work in tourism and instead of calling it accessible tourism anymore, it’s going towards inclusive tourism. What do you think about the idea of calling it inclusive dance?
Judith Smith: It’s called inclusive dance a lot. I think that is a great term. I know that about 10 years ago we were at some meeting talking about dance education and physically integrated dance. It occurred to me that I didn’t want to use the word adapting anymore. That I wanted to change that paradigm and start calling what we did translating movement because it’s not just the disabled dancers learning non-disabled movement, it’s the non-disabled dancers who have to translate what we do too. I felt like that was so much … It leveled the playing field a lot for me. It put the onus on all of us instead of just on the disabled dancers to go in the corner and figure it out which is what happens a lot in dance classes. I do feel like since 97 and since we went into a different direction with both our artistic work and our education work, that we’ve evolved a lot and grown up a lot.
Bonnie Lefkowitz: Yeah. Don’t you think … I remember when Bill T. was choreographing for us and he took Ooley’s movement, who also uses a chair. We all had to do that movement and then he took Janet, his assistant. He said, “Janet, go take the leggies and put … Go take the non-disabled people …”
Judith Smith: The 3 ladies.
Bonnie Lefkowitz: “The 3 ladies and out legs on them.”
Judith Smith: What he did was he had you, Megan and I and Ooley all create an upper body phrase and then he took material from that and had Janet basically put the lower half movement onto it. That was actually a really fascinating way to work.
Bonnie Lefkowitz: Right. That’s something I know I …
Judith Smith: Which never would have happened if we were just working with ourselves.
Bonnie Lefkowitz: Right. Right. No. It was I think hands down the best decision. As painful as it was to have some people leave because of the decision to use outside choreographers, it was the best thing that could have …
Judith Smith: Yeah. It was such a good strategy on every level.
Bonnie Lefkowitz: What about our education stuff? I know for me, I’m not doing the dancing anymore. It’s time to let the younger bodies do that stuff and there’s definitely a part of me that misses that. Teaching is such a big component.
Judith Smith: Yeah. I’d love to here what keeps you involved and how you stay involved with AXIS. I know that that does so maybe you could talk some about what it is that you’re doing with AXIS now.
Bonnie Lefkowitz: I think you probably feel the same way but in some way I feel like a co-parent to the company and I’ll never cut the umbilical cord because we gave birth to something.
Judith Smith: Yeah.
Bonnie Lefkowitz: AXIS is just a big part of who I am still. I always identify with AXIS. It has given me so much. That’s why I stay connected and want to give back to the company. I still teach kids. I enjoy teaching kids. I enjoy teaching older kids if they’re going to like an art school and want to be doing this. I don’t enjoy going into the high schools where the kids … This is just something of being put … They’re being made to do.
Judith Smith: Yeah. The other thing that I think you’re really fabulous at that you really found a niche at AXIS is teaching teachers-
Bonnie Lefkowitz: Teaching teachers. Yes.
Judith Smith: -how to teach dance and how to use it. How to use dance in the classroom?
Bonnie Lefkowitz:


I have a fabulous co-presenter in Annika, our education director.
Judith Smith: Annika Presley.
Bonnie Lefkowitz: One of my favorite stories and I come back to this all the time. I’ll probably cry because I always do when I talk about it. Renee and I were doing a 10 week teaching program in San Jose at an elementary school. It was always so fascinating to go into the different schools because such a range of funding I guess is what I want to say. You could tell where the poorer schools were and the wealthier schools and the whole atmosphere was completely different. The teachers were different. It was just fascinating.
Judith Smith: The principal has a lot to do with that too.
Bonnie Lefkowitz: Oh, yeah. We were at this one school and we started out by always doing an assembly, a school assembly, with the whole company. They had some familiarity about what kind of work we do and then we would do classes. We had third grade classes. It gone on for about 3 weeks and there was 1 kid in particular that I noticed that had some behavioral issues. Every class always did. The next week the teacher of that class came to us, came to me and Renee, and asked if we would stay afterwards 1 class and meet with this kid because he really wanted to meet with us and learned that he had gone back to his classroom … See. I’m already … Had gone back to the classroom with this classmates and lifted his shirt up. He asked the teacher, he said, “Can I show the kids something?” She said, “Sure. What do you want to show us?” He lifted his shirt up and he had been burned over 80% of his body and his teacher didn’t even know this. It was because he had seen AXIS and been in our classes …
Judith Smith: It was because he’d met you, Bonnie.
Bonnie Lefkowitz: He felt like it was okay to be in his skin and to let other people know.
Judith Smith: That he had a disability. That what something that he considered a disability. I do also recall that that little young man had some behavior issues and was having a hard time fitting in. That 8 weeks that you guys were there working in the school really transformed him.
Bonnie Lefkowitz: It did and the people around him that interacted with him. There was more compassion. This kid, this poor kid, had been burned by his uncle. It wasn’t intentional but it was an accident.
Judith Smith: Yeah. Really traumatic.
Bonnie Lefkowitz: Oh, yeah. He no longer lived with his family. Anyway, that’s the stuff that keeps me going.
Judith Smith: Yeah. There are lots of those stories. In 2005, we started doing our summer intensive which is usually has an international attendance. We often have people who had been dancers and became disabled and really didn’t think dance was a possibility, but they found out about us somehow and showed up. For one young woman, Christian, was her first time dancing since she’d been injured which was over a decade. Now she’s dancing again and dancing and performing. That’s that activist part and that people oriented part of me though I am more of an animal person for sure. Those stories are one of the things that I think really feed us and keep us going. We had the great opportunity for our dancers to be on “So You Think You Can Dance” twice. The number of emails and Facebooks and things like that that we got from people who said, “I had no idea that this was possible or that this existed. I want to do this. This is what I want to do with my life.” That’s what I think has … Keeps driving me is that there’s still a need.
Bonnie Lefkowitz: Speaking of “So You Think You Can Dance,” do you think that … There was the National Dance Day and they do this thing where they get everyone to do this certain phrase. I saw for the first time this year they taught a phrase for being sitting down. Do you think that was because of AXIS?
Judith Smith: I think it’s partially but the reason was on “So You Think You Can Dance” is that Nigel said in a board meeting, “I really want to have a physically integrated company on this show. He’s very committed to having everybody dance and to make sure that everybody knows that they can dance. Somebody said, “I know the company,” and he contacted. I think the fact that they brought us down there and then they brought us to their gala the next year and then back onto the show again, I think that that acknowledgement that there are disabled people dancing and there are people that dance in different ways other than on 2 feet is really in their ethos. It’s definitely something that they think about and talk about and that’s fabulous to have a show like that. Having Heather Mills on “Dancing With The Starts” was another one of those acknowledgements. Now we’re living in an era where we have all of these people coming back from the war with disability. Seen and unseen. There’s such a need to have disability front and center. Definitely performing and getting opportunities to be on TV are …
Those are great ways to let people know that this is possible.
Bonnie Lefkowitz: Where do you see yourself in AXIS in the next 5 years?
Judith Smith: As the artistic director, my role has also changed over the years. I started not being in in pieces when I decided I wasn’t really interested in doing 60 and 70 hour weeks anymore. I had to take myself out of rehearsal to handle the admin. Now the company has grown to a point where we do have such a strong profile in the contemporary dance world in the US and also in the disability community that I think that there’s a lot of work that needs to be done regionally. That’s where I see putting a lot of my energy into over the next 5 to 10 years. We have talked about this and we’ve had some stops and starts of getting some kind of a program going at the university level. That’s another place for us to still keep plotting our way into figuring out how to make that happen and how to have that happen.
I think regional, looking at regional hubs and how AXIS can support physically integrated dance that’s happening in Seattle and that’s happening in Chicago and that’s happening in Denver and Minneapolis and Miami and Boston and DC, that’s really what I feel like my personally energy needs to go to at this point. AXIS, we need to strengthen the artistic staff so that there’s somebody that’s handling the in the studio and I still want to curate because I love finding the choreographers that I think are going to be a great fit with this company and going to come in and push us in directions that we haven’t done. Give us ideas, insights, inspiration, that we haven’t experienced before. I do feel like I need to be out of the studio a little bit more and in the world.
Bonnie Lefkowitz: It doesn’t sound like retirement is in the picture?
Judith Smith: It’s not in the near picture though I’m hoping to get a 3 months sabbatical next year so I can go and drive my horses.
Bonnie Lefkowitz: I want to thank you for your amazing dedication. You’ve sacrificed a lot. You are, when you said you’re a driven person, well, that’s an understatement. Just thank you so, so much for who you are, what you’re doing and continue to do.
Judith Smith: Bonnie, it is something that I feel very passionate about and very driven. You’ve been along for the ride too. Twenty-seven years and you’re still participating and adding so much to the teacher training and education part. We’ve been so fortunate to have so many choreographers and composers and designers and presenters and funders get behind us. We’ve drawn really great people to our staff and into the dance companies. It’s definitely been a huge team effort.
Bonnie Lefkowitz: Oh, for sure.
Judith Smith: I think that that’s what we have to really focus on now is how do we grow and deepen our community so that we have the amount of support that we need to really … Because the amount that we’ve accomplished on the resources that we’ve had both financial and human, has really been fairly phenomenal. It’s really because I think everybody that comes into this world gets hooked on it-
Bonnie Lefkowitz: That’s very true.
Judith Smith: -and wants to see it continue. From the board of directors down to our interns …
Speaker 1: What have you both learned about yourselves in doing this work?
Judith Smith: Oh, boy. You go, Bonnie.
Bonnie Lefkowitz: Yeah. I’m trying to think what have I learned about myself. I learned that dance is a big part of who I am. I think I already knew that but I think I learned that I’m more of a process person and not an end result person. Enjoy the process of creating something. It’s not the end result that gives me that adrenaline rush. That’s one thing. I don’t know.
Judith Smith: I think you’ve been tenacious and very passionate about this work. I was 27 and you were 30 when we got into this. I definitely was coming to dance later in life. I think I’ve learned a lot that I already had because I was showing competitively horses for so long, a self-discipline and I think a self-motivation. I think I have learned a lot about people good and bad, stuff you know and I’ve learned a lot about relationships and about building … I think I have regrets. I wish there were some things that I had done a lot better particularly in that community building and relationship building. Early on, I feel like there was a lot of competitiveness when we did find out about each other because there wasn’t a lot of resources to be had. I think mostly I’ve been very fortunate and I think probably you have too of finding something to do with our lives that we believed in, that’s meaningful and not everybody has that. Some people go to a job because it pays the bills. I’ve never had to do that. I feel really fortunate.
Bonnie Lefkowitz: Blesses.
Judith Smith: Yeah. Really fortunate to have found a way to have access to support people and to actually pay people to do this work because for the first 10, 15 years, it wasn’t paid work. Now everybody in the company is paid. That’s really great. I think I’ve learned a lot about perseverance and tenacity. I think I’ve learned that I can take a lot more than maybe I thought I could which is probably a good and a bad thing.
Speaker 1: Can I ask one last question? Can you describe that first moment when you entered the room and realized that you either wanted to create this company or there was an opportunity for you to continue to dance or to start dancing even living with disabilities?
Bonnie Lefkowitz: I don’t think there was a light bulb that went on at any particular …
Judith Smith: I think it was a gradual … It was like a snowball.
Bonnie Lefkowitz: Although the first meeting that we had where we got together in a church, in a room, and I didn’t know people, anyone, and we just started moving. I have what I would call a pretty severe significant disability, quadriplegic, and dancing on my own … My moves were limited. When I saw that I could partner with someone and it expanded my movement, I think that’s when the light bulb went on for me that maybe I can dance. As you know, I always hated doing solos.
Judith Smith: Yeah. I do too.
Bonnie Lefkowitz: Partnering with someone, I felt like it really allowed me so much more possibilities. I think that’s when I realized, “Oh, I need to do this. I want to do this.”
Judith Smith: Yeah. I think for me it was just so exciting to find something that I could really sync my teeth into the way I had with horses and something that I could put a lot of time and a lot of energy and a lot of focus and a lot of creativity into.
Bonnie Lefkowitz: Besides, it was really fun.
Judith Smith: It’s really fun. No matter how bad you feel, if you go in and you just get in the studio and start moving, everything shifts. That’s why people do it because it’s a lot of fun.
Bonnie Lefkowitz: Thanks Judy.
Judith Smith: Thank you.


Music Credits: (“Lovely, Lonely, Instrument” by YEYEY, “Quand Le Dsrt Recule” by Guili Guili Goulag, and “Raiz Latina” by Chicken Jones.) Music under a Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 International License.



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Suggested Reference

Disability Visibility Project™. ( March 31, 2017 ). DVP Interview: Bonnie Lewkowicz and Judith Smith. Retrieved from:

Image Description:

A photo featuring Bonnie Lewkowicz and Judith Smith was taken on September 6, 2014: Close up portrait of two women sitting side by side in their wheelchairs outside the StoryCorps Booth, in front of a silver StoryBooth exterior wall. The woman on the left, Bonnie, has brown eyes and gray hair with shorter bangs and sides cropped just below her ears. Bonnie smiles at the camera and has her left arms leaning on the right armrest of Judith’s wheelchair. Bonnie appears to be white and is wearing an orange shirt with an open gray sweater, along with a black string necklace with a vertical rectangular pendant. The woman on the right, Judith, has blue eyes and long gray hair that reaches to her shoulders. Judith smiles at the camera and has both her hands folded in her lap. Judith appears to be white and is wearing a turquoise AXIS t-shirt and black pants.


Produced for the Disability Visibility Project™ by Yosmay del Mazo and Alice Wong with interviews recorded by StoryCorps, a national nonprofit whose mission is to provide Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share, and preserve the story of our lives. For more: and

For any questions, please refer to the Terms of Use.

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