Activating National and Local Connections to Further Physically Integrated Dance

By Judith Smith

December 1, 2016, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE
Photo by David DeSilva

For the first time in the United States, a national convening on the future of physically integrated dance took place earlier this year. This event, held over three days in New York City on May 16-18 of 2016, was part of the lifelong work of Judith Smith, Artistic Director and Founder of AXIS Dance Company.

This precedent-setting event is being followed up with six regional Town Halls throughout the U.S., bringing the national conversation to the local level. The final Town Hall meeting, co-hosted by Dancers’ Group, will take place in AXIS’ hometown of Oakland, California on Saturday, December 10, 2016.

Wayne Hazzard and Judith Smith exchanged some ideas and questions about the evolving concepts that fortify AXIS’s work in physically integrated dance and how far the conversation and work have come over the past three decades.

Wayne Hazzard: What’s your definition of physically integrated dance? Is this the same as inclusive dance?

Judith Smith: Physically integrated dance is a term that came out of the UK in the 90’s. Before, most of us were using ‘mixed ability.’ Physically integrated dance refers to dancers with physical disabilities whereas inclusive dance broadens the scope to dancers with a wider range of disability including learning and developmental disabilities.

WH: How would you describe the progress made towards physically integrated dance in the U.S.?

JS: Some progress has been made in terms of physical access to venues, more ASL interpreted events, and closed captioning and audio description being offered. And performances geared to those with autism are more common. What hasn’t changed is programmatic access—access to training opportunities are practically nonexistent—from entry-level for adults and youth, to opportunities out in the community and at the university level. But frankly, some venues are still not even wheelchair accessible.

WH: What questions do you want to address at the December Town Hall convening?

JS: I want us to connect most of all, as a field with this common interest in inclusion, access and equity. We’ll surface the topics of training opportunities for dancers with disabilities and for choreographers as well who are interested in working with disabled artists and integrated casts. We also still need to create more visibility for this work, and think about how we are going to network to stay connected.

WH: You’ve mentioned that connection as one of the best things to come out of the convenings — speak more to what you mean by connection.

JS: I’ve grown up in this field and I’ve helped to grow the field. Many of us working in this genre still feel very isolated as integrated companies are often the only one of our kind in a community. This is a huge country and we rarely are in the same places at the same time. Until these convenings most of us had never met each other. By connection, I mean face-to-face interaction which I’m sure will lead to more collaboration, networking, sharing our practices, etc.

WH: What’s the most challenging part of your work?

JS: Well, I have all the challenges other AD’s and ED’s in dance have but then I have the added challenges of access, attitudes, a very very small pool of available disabled dancers, added expenses when touring etc to accommodate our disabled dancers. Eg: Accessible vans are about $150/day to rent and hotels often have limited numbers of accessible rooms and they often have only 1 bed making double occupancy impossible. Airlines have been known to destroy our wheelchairs.

WH: What’s the most inspiring part?

JS: THE WORK!! The endless potential for new movement, new discovery. Seeing the impact our work has on people with disabilities and on nondisabled people. This work DOES change attitudes, ideas, etc. and it’s exciting. At almost every one of our Summer Intensives we have had a dancer who has become disabled and thought they’d never dance again. But they begin to explore dance for the first time since their injury. Several of these dancers have gone on to be in AXIS and in other projects. We have nondisabled dancers who’ve been told that they are too ‘this’ or too ‘that’ to be a dancer and it’s BS. People come to our performances and the most common descriptor we get is ‘mind-blowing’ and “I didn’t know disabled people could move like that!’ A friend’s son had a close friend who was a dancer and was injured in a car accident. He told her not to worry that she could still dance and she would have a great life. Nondisabled dancers often say that they are able to be more of who they are as a dancer and going back to more traditional dance work is just not as exciting or meaningful. We get endless cards and letters from kids who see our assemblies and in-theater youth shows who say in various ways that AXIS taught them they could do whatever and be whoever they want and to never give up on their dreams.

WH: Thank you for those reflections, they make me smile and cry. Who should consider coming to the December convening?

JS: Anyone who is working in integrated/ inclusive dance or wants to know about it — dancers, choreographers, funders, presenters, disability organizations and dance educators.

WH: Is there something that I haven’t asked that you’d like to talk about?

JS: After 30 years of trying to make a place in dance for AXIS and others like us, I feel like it’s FINALLY happening. I am so excited about developing deeper partnerships with Dancers’ Group, with Dance/USA and Dance/NYC as disability and inclusive dance become an important part of their equity platforms. The national and regional advocacy work has been particularly invigorating and inspiring for me. It has been a conduit to galvanize over 300 activators — artistic directors, dancers, choreographers, funders, presenters, service organizations, dance writers and educators— across three generations to work together to increase equity, inclusion and access for people of all abilities to participate in the dance form we love. Darren Walker from Ford Foundation recently published a letter about how he as a gay, African American had completely overlooked disability as the foundation’s equity work. And I’m exhausted by the struggle and now I feel that I no longer have to convince the field that this is important, vital and frankly the right thing to do. The momentum is palpable and the time is right.

Join us at the December 10th convening in Oakland, CA, 10a-4p at the Malonga Casquelord Center for the Arts. Free with RSVP
Read Weaving a Future for Inclusive Dance: Integrating Disability Into the Dance World by Debra Cash. This article originally appeared in Dance/USA’s eJournal, From the Green Room, on March 22, 2016, and was reprinted with permission in the May 2016 issue of In Dance. It can be read at

UDITH SMITH, Artistic Director and Founder of AXIS Dance Company, was born and raised in Colorado. Prior to becoming disabled in a car accident at age 17 in 1977, Judith was a champion equestrian. She tranferred her passion for riding to dance after discovering contact improvisation in 1983. She has earned an international reputation in the field of physically integrated dance. She has commissioned works by some of the nation’s best choreographers and composers and has developed one of the field’s most extensive integrated dance education/outreach programs. Judith has performed, taught and lectured nationally and serves on the advisory board of the Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography, The National Art and Disability Center, Dancers’ Group and Bates Dance Festival. Judith initiated the first ever National Convening on Physically Integrated Dance in 2016, followed by six regional convenings. She was honored with an Isadora Duncan Dance Award for Sustained Achievement in 2014, the O2 Initiatives Sabbatical Award in 2015 and in 2016 she was honored as one of Theatre Bay Area’s 40 people that have changed the face of Bay Area theatre. In her spare time, Judith is actively involved in thoroughbred racehorse rescue, raising butterflies and carriage driving with a team of horses.