"Dancing to His Own Beat"
By Dustin Loehr
© March 2008
One of the questions that I am asked most often is, “How did you get into storytelling?”
My story is a bit different than most. One day my acting teacher announced that there was an open audition call for
storytellers and since I was going to be in that area later I thought, “Why not?” I dragged along a few
of my friends and we auditioned as Youth Tellers for the Mesa Storytelling Festival in my home state of Arizona. I
was soon greeted by a tiny little man with the biggest grin. Most know this man as Dr. Don Doyle, one of the greatest
storytellers in the southwest United States. However he asked us to call him Don. Don greeted us like he had known us
all his life. After a few moments of small talk he asked each of us to tell him a story. I had no idea what he meant.
At seventeen years old I told my first story about tap dancing at a talent show and consequently the one and only time
I had ever fallen on stage. Don loved the story and asked if I would incorporate my tap dancing with my stories.
“I don’t see why not.” I responded. I got the gig and the extra credit for my acting class! Little
did I know that this one chance audition, and this giant of a man, would change my life and outlook on art forever?
All my life I wanted to be an actor. However, the idea of being on stage,
performing in front of a full house of people, and paid for it was surreal. I didn’t just want to be an actor;
I knew I would be an actor. When I wasn’t auditioning for plays, or performing in a play, I was dancing. Which
brings me to another question I am used to hearing, “When did you start tap dancing?” To which, I always
give the same answer. I was always dancing. Even before I knew what tap dancing, I was dancing. Even before I had tap
shoes I was tapping. My parents have the home videos of me to prove it! I started my formal training when I was
three years old and I never left the dance studio. I never really wanted to be a tap dancer; I was a tap dancer. It
was something as normal to me as walking. I guess I never realized how good I was at the art of tap.
Rewind to that very first storytelling concert. I was nervous. My mom and
dad and grandparents were there. I stood with my tap shoes in hand and my tap board under my arm ready to take the
stage. I had rehearsed my story for the umpteenth time that morning. The idea of not memorizing my story was frightening
at first, however I soon discovered the freedom that came along with telling from the heart and I learned to love it.
I was one of the only Youth Teller’s to tell twice that day, and my first performance was in the largest tent,
full of over three hundred squirming kids. One of the tellers present, David Novak, gave me the greatest advice that
morning. “If you are nervous, you should open with your tap, something you know you can do well.” I
listened to David, and after my tap intro, I dove into the story. I let it fill my heart and soul.
The story I told was Sophie’s Masterpiece by Eileen Spinelli. Sophie
the spider makes wondrous webs, but the residents of the boarding house where she lives don't appreciate her
efforts...until at last, old and tired, she weaves her final masterpiece. As the story is told, we envision Sophie
moving. As I tell, I tap Sophie's movements. I tap differently as she is climbing up the stairs, scurrying under
doors or spinning her beautiful webs I tap a new set of rhythms for significant moments in the story. I work hard to
find just the right tap for the tale.
I have returned to that festival every year since to tell my stories, and
this year I decided that this was what I wanted to do with my life. When I tell, I know and feel that this is me up
there. It is one hundred percent Dustin Loehr. When I play a character in a show, I become that character, a shadow
of myself yes, but the character nonetheless, and when I tap I’m doing the choreographer’s work, not mine.
I become his or her puppet. However, when I tell, the audience is seeing and hearing my words, my taps and my moves.
When I tap, I’m not just dancing; I’m making music with my feet and telling stories with that music.
When I tell I’m free. Free to express myself using both my training in theatre and in dance.
My advice to any youth tellers would be to find a mentor. Find someone
who will support you when you need it. Find someone who you can run a story by and with as you look at a new idea
or concept. Seek out someone who can answer all your questions. Believe me you will have many of them. I am lucky
to have many mentors. I already mentioned Don and David, but others include Liz Warren, Lynn Ann Wojciechowicz,
Donna Washington, Dorothy Anderson, Kevin Cordi, and Connie Reagan-Blake. All of these wonderfully talented people
have been there to give advice, to answer my many questions and to just be a friend. Find a mentor and listen to
them, because they want to help you. They realize that youth are the key to keeping stories alive. When you find a
story, make it your own, put yourself into it and recognize yourself in it. It’s you. Love it.
In order to illustrate this love for story, I would like to tell you a
story. Only a few days ago, I had my first gig at an elementary school where I told alone. Previously I have been a
teller at festivals and other events, but this time I was all on my own. I was scheduled for an hour block with the
entire first grade class. There were over one hundred kids! I performed my program, tapping here and there and telling
my stories. The kids loved it, and so did the teachers! There was one boy named Eric who took notice of my work.
He was actually sent there to work in the library because his teacher was out and he has a problem behaving with subs.
Anyway, Eric was present for my performance and I noted how he seemed to really be involved with the stories as the
program went on. As I moved, so did Eric. I could tell he was listening but how could I be sure? After the show, as
I was packing up my tap shoes, I overheard one of the older students complaining about how she couldn’t do this
test, that it was impossible. That’s when I heard Eric speak up. He said, “Nothing is impossible if you
just try your hardest.” I stopped what I was doing. That was one of the messages in one of my stories. He got it!
The librarian later commented on how she had never seen Eric respond to something so positively. I touched that child
that day, and even if he was the only one that I touched, I did my job.
Becoming a storyteller is not easy. I’m just beginning to learn
that. I wasn’t paid in a monetary sense for that show, but knowing that I may have changed one little boy’s
life is worth much, much more. Storytelling is a powerful educational tool. Storytellers may tell stories of other
worlds, but they have the ability to shape this one.