by Carole Verona
When she was growing up in Media, Pa., six-year-old Emily Nussdorfer knew she wanted to be a dancer. She remembers “standing on the seat, dancing and gesticulating” when her mother took her to see “Man of La Mancha” way back then.
But it took Emily, a West Mt. Airy resident, a lifetime of criss-crosssing the globe, study and introspection before she really understood how to take her love of dance and use it to effect social change.
Emily, who asked that her age not be mentioned, began her journey as a student at Colby College in Maine. She had the opportunity to spend her sophomore year in London. Always one to think outside of the proverbial box, she found the London Fringe Theatre Festival — dedicated to independent and sometimes controversial artists — stimulating and exciting. She remained in England for half of her junior year, studying Shakespeare in Stratford-upon-Avon and immersing herself in reading, seeing plays, writing and studying British playwrights. She gravitated toward radical playwrights who looked at how social systems weren’t working and who tried to bring audiences into new ways of thinking. “I realized then that I wanted to be part of raising consciousness around what’s unfair, what’s unequal,” she said.
After she graduated from Colby in 1987, Emily went to New York to study musical theater but wound up singing, songwriting and dancing. An equestrian since she was a kid, she also taught horseback riding. In 1992 she found her way to The Living Theater, a company that embraced social change. The ensemble worked with audiences to bring them into the plays they created around relevant, contemporary themes, such as homelessness.
Emily then traveled to New Mexico, where she undertook an artist’s residency at the Fellowship for the Ecology and the Arts. The experience renewed her desire to use art as a vehicle through which to create change. Her focus become clearer, and she decided she wanted to work with children … “to find ways to open up their creativity and minds and to empower them and to give them a voice through the arts.”
When she returned to New York, Emily developed mercury poisoning and had to go back to her parents’ home in Philadelphia to heal. The next six years were spent in self-discovery, including a trip to Hawaii, where she studied indigenous dance forms. During this time, Emily was greatly influenced by Paul Coelho’s book “The Alchemist.” “I learned that sometimes you have to travel far to find that what you’re looking for is in your own back yard,” she said.
In 1998, Emily entered the Creative Therapy in Arts Program at MCP Hahnemann University (now the Drexel University College of Medicine, College of Nursing and Health Professions, and School of Public Health). This course of study enabled her to develop specialized clinical and educational skills in dance, movement and drama therapy. She chose to write her thesis on the importance of creativity and the symbolic quest for meaning and purpose in youth development and community health. She received a masters’ degree in dance and movement therapy in 2001.
After graduation from Hahnemann, she spent several years applying her education and experience to working with teens at various organizations in the Philadelphia area and in New Jersey. While collaborating with the Family Planning Council between 2003 an 2005, she received a grant to develop the Girls of Promise Program. This eventually led to Moving Creations, the non-profit organization she founded for the purpose of “changing lives, one performance at a time.”
The mission of Moving Creations is to promote youth development and leadership through transformative performances created by teens. The Philadelphia Foundation, Bread and Roses, United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania and other generous donors have supported her work. The office is currently located at Summit Presbyterian Church, 6757 Greene St. in West Mt. Airy.
Through Moving Creations’ Girls on the Move Project, first piloted in 2005 and still going strong, girls from 13 to 17 who live in high-risk inner city neighborhoods learn to take charge of their lives by creating and participating in the creative and performing arts. The girls spend one year working individually and in teams to create a performance. The program is held after school and on weekends and is led by professional artists who act as instructors and mentors.
“The first thing we do is to build leadership skills in kids who have behaviors that are destructive to themselves and others,” Emily said. “Often, there’s no structure that holds them tight. There’s destabilization in the family and a lack of resources in the school. These kids don’t have the support they need to stick with something. They often come to school filled with anger, and they bring with them the trauma they experience at home and in their neighborhood. They create a tough front to stave off that trauma and to survive.”
The girls end up creating a performance that includes poetry, theater and dance. The show they create is about them. The Moving Creations’ website features testimonials from girls who have participated in the program and their families. One of the girls, Shalante Townsend, said, “ “I see myself now as a young woman. Before graduating this program, I was like a little kid, immature. I did not really care about too much of anything…I have a passion now to complete my dreams, become what I want to be, to complete what I start.”