May Artist of the Month David Voss

May Artist of the Month David Voss

By Silva Laukkanen 

Soldier… Educator…Barney the Dinosaur. These are just a few of the titles that our May Artist of the Month David Voss has held throughout his extraordinary career. I had a chance to talk with him this week and hear about some of his amazing journey in the world of dance. 

Dancer poses with arms forming a large circle in front of him. For David, it all started back in his high school. “It was a little bit like ‘Fame’,” he said. Students had the opportunity to take visual art, dance, drama, or music, instead of the more traditional choice of different sports. In his drama studies, one of his first experiences of using movement was when he became part of a mime troupe that told serious stories through movement and mime. The ability to convey to the audience the arc of the story, including what they were feeling using movement alone, impressed upon him the power of movement that he had never previously experienced.

One day his agent (as a student in an arts-focused high school, David had an agent) gave David a call that was going to change the course of his life. It was for a part on a brand-new television show called “Barney the Dinosaur.” The part he was trying out for? Barney. Yes, Barney. In fact, David played Barney the Dinosaur for the very first six videos that were ever made!  

Person standing next to Barney the Dinosaur, a purple dinosaur mascot costume. However, when the show went on a two-year hiatus, David wasn’t quite sure what to do. It was then that David’s dad suggested that David should join the military to gain some more time to figure things out, as well as follow in his grandfather's military service footsteps. The idea of serving his country appealed to David and so he joined the army.

He recalls a vivid memory in which a sergeant told him “Voss, you just don’t have that killing spirit. You are a good soldier but you might need to rethink your future when you come to the end of your contract.” David took it as a compliment and after finishing his contract he was contacted by the choreographer of the now world-famous Barney and she asked if he would come back as her assistant. David didn’t even think twice, and said yes. Anytime the children on the show needed help with one of the steps or some of the movements, he would take them aside and support them in their learning.  

After six years, David wanted to challenge himself and learn more about dance and dancing. He started his dance studies in a community college, and later, also studied at Austin Community College, a place with which he still feels a strong connection. With the Barney enterprise, David ended up playing over 20 characters, and teaching and supporting several hundred dancers. He even went on the world tour with them and eventually stayed with Barney for over 20 years.  

five dancers pose standing with their arms stretched out to their sidesAt that point in David’s life, a friend working at the Veterans Administration told David that there was a position open with them that lead to David working in the administrative office at the Austin VA Outpatient clinic. One of David’s colleagues at the VA knew that he was a dancer so he asked David if he wanted to audition for the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival.

David submitted a dance video called “Found” as he was dealing with struggles and he felt lost. He wanted to portray how dance can heal us and how anything can be dance - even stillness can be dance. “Movement and dance is one of those things that if you're going through any mental challenges, mental health issues, it's one of the ways to recover,“ David says. David won the award that year and received a gold medal for his video. Since then he has participated in the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival six times with different choreographies and each time he has won either gold or silver medal for his choreography.  

What does the future hold for David? I was wondering too, which is why I always pose my last question around hopes and dreams for the future. David's dream is to organize the “Parachute project,” a dance gathering four times a year that would happen at different local parks. It would be a gathering that is geared towards veterans and their friends and family, but where everyone is welcome. The reason he chose the name “Parachute Project” is because the parachute is a kind of symbol for the military, and also represents hope and rescue. The plan for “Parachute Project” is to go into a park and create a space for meditative movement in which he would combine yoga with movement.  

Four performers doing the "thriller" dance on stage. David is now teaching several movement and dance classes at the Austin VA Outpatient clinic as a part of the whole health team where he is a strong advocate for the power of movement as a healing practice. “I would say dancing literally saved me because there were times where I had sleep issues and I was dealing with a lot in my life and I had a little bit of PTSD. The only thing that really helped was dance because when you calm the body, you can calm the mind. And with dance, you can express, you can release, and you can feel.”  

Quote from one of the long-time participants of David’s class: “Some people are surprised veterans would do this, but it's one way [fluttering fingertips toward his face] to try to get those devils out of your head, and live again. It’s an expression of what you are feeling at the moment, and there is no ‘bad’ feeling. When we have movement we’re creating a space where there’s no judgment, no expectation and through that we can actually get to know each other.” 

The Veteran Dance program called Art of Movement and Dance was started in 2016, and continues to meet weekly at the VA Outpatient clinic in Austin. It is co-lead with three instructors who all teach different movement styles. I am one of the lucky teachers in this program and it has been an absolute pleasure to get to work alongside David. He is so supportive and kind. There is not a moment when he doesn’t lift up people around him. You couldn’t ask for a more supportive colleague.  

You can listen to David talk about his career and join his movement class in our next virtual Open Mic, which is taking place Sunday, May 8 at 1:00 PM CDT. You can find the link to join at the Facebook page.

David joined us on our Community Conversation Series, talked about his career, shared some videos, and guided us through something relaxing for the end of the day. You can view the Conversation here.

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