One hears increasingly often about expanding our concept of “dancer bodies” and about the importance of diversifying our ideas of what a dancer looks like. But even with this growing—and vital—conversation, it’s all too rare for people to extend their vision of who is a dancer to artists with disabilities.
AXIS Dance, founded in 1987 in California, was one of the first companies to integrate dancers in wheelchairs or using crutches or prosthetics. According to AXIS Dance co-founder and artistic director Judith Smith in this Dance/USA article,
As we talk about equity and diversity in the arts, there is a danger that disability is being left out of the discussion of both. That's a huge missed opportunity…Disabled dancers and actors do exist, but their opportunities to train, much less make a living as artists, are very, very limited. The theater community has taken this on in a number of discussions. In our field, we [in the dance world] are just at the beginning of this conversation.
But physically integrated dance is starting to gain momentum with much-needed dialogue and research.
Last year was the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, an integral statement of inclusive rights for people with disabilities. In celebration of this milestone and in hopes of facilitating greater progress, Dance/NYC, in alliance with DANCE/USA, initiated a 3-part research project about the state of physically integrated dance in NYC.
Their first report, Discovering Disability: Data and NYC Dance, identifies a major need for increased dialogue and research into the opportunities, value, and needs of a physically integrated dance community. Improved and increased education, data, and collaboration initiatives are pointed out as crucial next steps forward:
Under-tapped educational opportunities abound and are an area of interest. For instance, viewing lives in dance on a continuum, there are opportunities to more deeply engage disabled New Yorkers through both childhood and adult dance instruction, including professional training that could grow the number and talent of disabled artists working in the field. There are also key opportunities for leadership training and professional development to help key stakeholders—from dance groups to investors and service providers—execute best practices for communications, facilities, and program access and work toward full inclusion.
In defining the term disability, Dance/NYC importantly considers the word “as a marker for identity, not an assignment of medical significance. [This] promotes disability as a lens for dance making—creation and performance with disabled artists—to foster artistic excellence, innovation, and impact. It also avoids limiting its purview solely to the art form’s therapeutic benefits.”
While the therapeutic benefits of dance for dancers with disabilities are tremendous—for example, click here to read about the amazing results of dance programs that engage with Parkinson’s patients—the arts community misses out by seeing dancers with disabilities not primarily as dancers, but as patients who dance in spite of disabilities.
“When I began working with disabled performers, I encountered resistance to the concept of ‘disabled’ dancers. My work has been seen as community work, as therapeutic with an immediate assumption that my dancers are wheelchair users,“ says Heidi Latsky, founder of Heidi Latsky Dance. ”In actuality, like a painter, I had found another color to add to my palette. People often tell me that I have changed my dancers’ lives when in fact they have changed mine. Together, in that way that only the art of dance can, we have moved out of our comfort zones, embraced a wider and more human aesthetic, and redefined for ourselves and others what dance is.”
Watch videos of AXIS Dance, DanceAbility International, or Heidi Latsky Dance in action (and there are many other excellent examples to peruse online or live!). It’s immediately clear that the artists, both dancers and choreographers, are not merely managing to convey meaningful art despite their physical challenges or the “hindrance” of technology they use to aid their movements. Rather, the artists use their variously embodied perspectives and masterfully incorporate supportive technology like wheelchairs or crutches into the choreography and concepts. What might have traditionally been considered a disadvantage is actually powerful creative fodder. “If we look at society as being stronger when it incorporates more voices, adding the voice of physically integrated dance to the mix is a good thing,” says Smith. “If performing arts institutions in general don’t embrace disability inclusion as an important aspect of equity, they are missing out on new ways of thinking and innovating.
Last May, AXIS Dance hosted a national convening of stakeholders in the integrated dance world, including dancers, choreographers, arts administrators, and more. Participants focused on key subjects for the advancement of physically integrated dance, such as mentorship, training for disabled dancers, and opportunities for disabled choreographers and choreographers who want to work with disabled dancers. You can watch a video summary of the proceedings here.
This national convening is to be followed up with regional ones throughout the next two months. Two, in the northeast and southwest, have already occurred. “It was truly an amazing and inspiring few days,” says Shira Greenberg, director of Keshet Dance Company, which hosted the southwest event and provides excellent dance education opportunities to dancers with disabilities.
Photo: Heidi Latsky Dance’s Gimp. Photograph by Kris Lefcoe