Not Laughing, But Dancing

By Claire Cunningham


“You should be a dancer.” For years my best friend Linda (who is a dancer), had been saying this to me. I can’t say what my reply to her was; I don’t think they would allow me to print it, but it was always accompanied by derisory laughter on my part. This attitude towards dancers was not some sort of discrimination–let’s get that straight before you all lynch or sue me. It’s just that I had very stereotypical ideas of what dance was and the kind (physically) of person who did it. And that person wasn’t on crutches and it wasn’t me. So how is it now, here I am…emm, oh god, it’s hard to say it… (grits teeth), a dancer, performing in Jess Curtis/Gravity’s new show – Under the Radar? (Sorry Linda. You were right).

I’ll try to explain. I have a physical impairment as a result of osteoporosis–my bones are weaker than average and my shinbones in particular are very susceptible to fracture. As a result I have used crutches since I was 15, mainly as a preventative medicine, to minimise weight on my legs and back. I studied as a classical singer. That was always what I wanted to do. I just wanted to sing – I didn’t want audiences to see me or look at the way I walked. It was the song that mattered and nothing else. So I minimised any movement on stage–walk on, sing, walk off. For six years I worked mainly in musical theatre in Scotland, with an inclusive music company called Sounds of Progress. I had a lot of success with them but despite critical acclaim, work was sporadic and the only people offering it to me were disability arts companies. I was consistently working with the same people and largely playing to the same audiences. It felt like preaching to the converted. In order to get out of the loop I had to make myself more employable. Singing was not sufficient–I needed to have additional performance skills.

In 2004 I began to wonder about the upper body strength that I had developed as a result of using the crutches. I had always disliked it as being very “unfeminine,” but eventually thought “Well, I’m stuck with it, how can I use it to my advantage?” I started learning aerial dance skills. My aerial training prompted me to apply for a job with Blue Eyed Soul Dance Company, an inclusive dance company based in England that was looking to create an integrated aerial duet. I got the job and poor Jess Curtis arrived to make the piece only to be greeted by me; “Hi. I’m not a dancer. I don’t dance.” Luckily he didn’t fire me. Instead he rather carefully introduced me to contact improvisation. I was completely unaccustomed to physical contact. I suppose it must have been a bit like breaking in a horse! Dancers are very tactile. Scottish and British people are not terribly tactile in general.

Contact was therefore quite an overload, mentally and physically. Rolling about on the floor with someone was the kind of thing that, as an adult, I would only consider doing in private, with someone who had at least bought me dinner. It’s a strange world to come into –and I do not mean to offend Contactors anywhere–I am now converted and love it but it’s an adjustment. I am gradually getting accustomed to the contradictions–lots of hugging and kissing on meeting each other but rolling about on each other means nothing. OK.

In that first project with Jess when doing contact, I left my crutches at the edge of the dance floor as I had no concept of how they could work in terms of movement and thought they would get in the way, I also worried I might hurt the other dancer. In break times however I had a habit of doing little balancing tricks on my crutches (lifting my weight completely into my hands and my feet off the ground). The sort of thing I do to amuse myself when I’m waiting around and I think no-ones watching. It also has a practical purpose–it alleviates the weight in my legs and back if I’m standing. Jess and Jami (the other dancer) became really intrigued by this. I thought everyone that used crutches long–term probably did this. Apparently not.

Jess encouraged me to just play around with this and gradually I myself got interested in what I could do. We worked on moving with the crutches and that was the start of my beginning to learn that I could dance. I applied for, and received, a Creative Scotland Award from the Scottish Arts Council to research the potential for creating my own movement style and in collaboration with my friend and colleague Kally Lloyd-Jones (a former ballet dancer turned contemporary dancer and choreographer) I spent the summer of 2006 creating a training program–tailored specifically to my own body.

It was an incredible experience, both physically and (unexpectedly) emotionally. The aim was to build my strength and stamina and to learn how and why to stretch/warm up/down. A lot of the program was a variation of floor barre- -no weight bearing, as standing and keeping balanced we discovered created a huge amount of tension through my body. We found out so many fascinating things about the way my body had been working. Within six weeks I had muscles that had never been there before. It was particularly obvious to me in my legs which had been very underdeveloped; they looked dramatically different to me–not like my own legs at all. One day in particular I remember I was training and I did a leg exercise and thought, “Okay how do my legs feel?” The first word that came to mind was “strong.” In my life I had never associated, or expected to associate this word with my legs. It was quite upsetting (but in a good way), as like so many things over the last two years another of my beliefs and preconceptions about myself was being turned on its head. On a lighter note though I grew an ass! (Not many women would be pleased about that but I am!)

I think an important aspect of the training and of the time I have spent with dancers in projects such as Under the Radar is learning what is common to all bodies. To find that even the “non-disabled” dancers (that appear to me to have a similar high level of fitness) are in fact reconciling their movement to the (perhaps more subtle) limitations of their bodies was vital for me. Likewise learning to distinguish when something is uncomfortable or difficult for everyone and not just me (i.e. a stretch) made a big difference. It was essential in terms of developing my body awareness; learning to distinguish the ‘right’ kind of pain, i.e. when something was sore simply because it was difficult as opposed to pain because it was the wrong thing for my body. I think in terms of working with people with physical impairments in dance this is a crucial factor. I began to attend a chiropractor–quite a leap of faith when your bones are a bit fragile. He now works regularly on my upper back and neck and this, in combination with having developed muscles to support my spine means I have gained 1.2 inches in height. At my height (now 4 feet 9.9 inches) that makes a big difference!

One of the most striking things for me about working with dancers is that there is a strange similarity to the way I was treated by doctors, but the mentality and the touch is so different. Doctors would point out what was wrong, how things didn’t work, whereas dancers are looking at my body and saying “Wow! That’s interesting…your leg does this!” Not, “Her leg doesn’t do this.” Emotionally it has a huge impact. Dancers, I feel, are looking at ways to take how my body already works and develop that, while as a child I felt physiotherapists were trying to correct how I moved.

As part of my grant I spent six weeks in Pittsburgh studying with Bill Shannon, a performance artist who has crafted his own completely innovative dance style using crutches. Undoubtedly he sees possibilities with the crutches that other choreographers wouldn’t. He taught me to create my own vocabulary–to name the movements that I had and expand on them. He made me aware of some of the choices and tools that dancers are working with–things that would seem very obvious to professional dancers but to me were completely new concepts–levels, speed, rhythm, focus, tension, etc. Bill taught me elements of his own technique that he felt were transferable, and although working one-to-one was incredibly intense and slightly intimidating it boosted my self-confidence tremendously and I left with a distinct feeling of self ownership of my own movement style and the potential I had.

In terms of my current self perception, I know it is dramatically different from two years ago. I am pretty confused these days about who I am as I have found myself doing so many things that I had spent my life saying I couldn’t or wouldn’t do. I feel I am re-inventing myself though and that’s fun. As regards my perception of myself in terms of my physicality, this is gradually changing. I cannot say that I find beauty or grace in the way my body looks or the way I move. I don’t; I find myself clumsy, awkward and wrong. I am a disabled person who has grown up wanting to be “normal,” idolising the aesthetic of perfection and beauty that Hollywood, etc churns out–which makes me feel at times like a traitor in the ranks with friends and colleagues who are very comfortable and proud of their identities as disabled people. However I am now creating a way of working that undeniably relates to being disabled and this is forcing me to examine how I relate to that part of my identity. I also have to accept that other people are seeing beauty and grace in the way I look and move. My work with Jess and in particular Under the Radar, in the discussions it has provoked and in the physical work I have been part of, has forced me to acknowledge this. This may be another thing I have to let go of. In the same way that I believed I would never use the word “strong” in relation to my legs, I may have to accept that soon I may actually become graceful.

This article appeared in the March 2007 issue of In Dance.