In a New Place: Dance & Disability in 2018

By Patricia Reedy

January 1, 2019, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

The San Francisco Bay Area is known to be on the vanguard of what is possible in dance, who dances, where, and how. Because of the work of AXIS Dance Company, Dandelion Dancetheater, the Bay Area International Deaf Dance Festival, Jess Curtis/Gravity, Sins Invalid, and other local companies, we are exposed to all kinds of dancers and are reminded that everyone can find a place in our dance community. Since 2012, Luna Dance Institute has hosted an annual Dance & Disability discourse panel comprised of local experts to address issues of equity, access, and inclusion. It has become a place where questions around exhibitionism, awareness, stereotypes, prejudice, ignorance, and bias are unearthed and investigated and where artists on the frontlines of disability activism are able to share their progress, continue conversations, and acknowledge collegial solidarity. This article describes the arc of the Dance & Disability discourse panel experience over the past seven years.

The Dance & Disability discourse panel is typically held on a Saturday afternoon in mid-October. It is offered free to the public. The discourse is structured in a “fishbowl” type environment with the panelists sitting in a semi-circle and the audience lounging in Luna’s “parent area” in front of them. A moderator asks three open-ended questions that are answered by the panelists, followed by questions from the audience, and an extensive period of resource-sharing. The panelists have become increasingly comfortable conversing with one another, inviting the public to glimpse rare, important conversations among expert peers.

Panelists volunteer their time to participate. They are invited through extensive outreach efforts to have the most diverse representation possible. Over the years, representatives from the dance organizations above have been joined by professionals in the field of education: autism experts, special education teachers, university disability activists, and infant mental health clinicians. Many, such as Judith Smith from AXIS Dance, Eric Kupers from Dandelion, Antoine Hunter from Urban Jazz Company, and autism expert, Pamela Wolfberg, are repeaters. As a dance education organization, Luna holds this panel in order to imagine and create a world where every child can participate in dance. The voices of those who work with children enrich and enliven the conversation about theater-based dance.

One thing that I have come to love about the discourse panel is the repeaters—both on the panel and in the audience. This year, I delighted in watching Dandelion director, Eric Kupers, and autism-expert, Suzanna Curtis, knitting as they talked about how Aikido is a model for multi-level teaching. It became evident that the panelists had participated in each other’s events since the last convening and become collegial friends.

When Luna offered the first discourse panel in 2012, it was because we were immersed in creating inclusion classes in Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) elementary schools. We had expertise among our faculty but wanted to know more. As with many events at Luna, we believe if we want to learn something, others might too, so we opened it up to the public. The questions at that first panel focused on strategies, structural obstacles, equity, and inspiration: Why should teaching dance to children with special needs be different from teaching dance to children? How did you start working in dance & special needs? What lesson learned can you share with someone who is just starting this work? The first convening had a sense of “preaching to the choir,” and people felt relieved at the opportunity to speak their truth. Over the years, the panelists have returned, and new experts integrated, and the conversation has changed to be less about providing opportunity and more about furthering the field. Inclusion, at least among this group, has become a given, but equity remains a priority issue.

This year, 2018, the major questions were: What is disability? What do we mean by dance? What is rigor? How can we educate funders and administrators that it isn’t about the numbers? Disability arts activists have been doing this work for a very long time, and now that funders have finally begun accepting their work as an essential endeavor, they are supposed to have solutions—expected to have measurable outcomes. When the conversation was merely about access, measurement was more straightforward: how many theaters had ramps, how many presenters included works by artists with disabilities, how many special education children received dance in school? One panelist suggests, “high impact doesn’t just mean numbers, it is somehow being able to make the case for looking at systems, and how the fact that this small class of four people with disabilities is helping to balance our larger society. And, maybe some classes do have 100 people in it, and it happens online for something else but, to have a balanced, thriving human community we need to have these intimate spaces.”

There was a great deal of conversation about what is meant by the term “rigor with regard to inclusive dance practices. Panelists were in relative agreement that rigor needs to be de-coupled from technical prowess or virtuosity and that there needs to be multiple entry points for dancers with disabilities to study or train. People who danced before acquiring a disability have a different understanding of what is possible technically and artistically than children (or adults) who participate in dance to be part of a community. One panelist equated these topics with the problems “contemporary dance has grappled with throughout the years; what is artistic quality?” and who gets to define it? People come to dance for different reasons and artists and organizations require funding for different purposes. Another panelist challenged us to think about quality and rigor differently, “rigor can mean so many things, and it can be physical rigor and muscular rigor, it can be rigor about communication techniques, it could be rigor about learning to hang out in a space where we don’t know what’s happening and it’s very uncomfortable, and we have to deal with that. It could be rigor in dealing with racism and sexism and all that…sometimes we equate rigor and technique and I think that’s a mistake…what drew me to modern dance … is a discipline of questioning and questioning and questioning and inclusive dance is the edge of that right now.”

Dancers with disabilities are in a new place. They are welcomed more frequently into community dance classes even though dance teachers on the panel humbly admit to not knowing how to support them effectively. According to the AXIS dancers in the room, dancers with disabilities still have to figure it out for themselves. At the same time, one artist shared that community expectations might not prepare dancers for what is required of them in a professional setting. They have to figure this new level out, as well. With a different perspective, an elementary school special education teacher shared the value in her students having to figure things out, “dance…is that opportunity where they run into each other and they have to figure out how to go about it, where they trip over each other, and they need to apologize and help the other person up and then continue on and listening to what your teacher is saying at the same time and creating something that’s really, really beautiful without a screen involved… and, when I have the most challenging class I’ve had in years and I’m baffled at what to do with them but in dance I don’t have to worry about that…they can find their own voice and they can find their own space and if there was a way to measure that you would get every grant you ever applied for…”

No answers were provided for the rigor/expectations conversation, but there was a great deal of agreement about the need to expand our understanding of rigor and technique. “Being able to translate (use various parts of the body to express a similar idea) is a huge technical ability,” was a statement agreed by everyone in the room who has tried it. Aikido was brought up as an example of multi-level learning that is both rigorous and allows for multiple entry points as peers of different abilities learn from and challenge each other. Panelists were excited by this example, but also agreed that teachers need to be able to try things and make mistakes, we need time for research and development. In 2016, AXIS Dance founder, Judith Smith, curated a summit to discuss the future of physically integrated dance in the U.S. and summarized the findings in a national report. A finding from that convening was articulated in this year’s conversation, “field-wide, I think that’s what’s going to be necessary to get inclusive dance up and going at a lot of different levels, is that time to lab.”

The 2018 Dance & Disability panelists have moved the field forward and take for granted the need for inclusion, access, and equity. They are pushing boundaries at a very high level. It would be misleading, however, to not describe issues of public ignorance that were shared. One panelist asked the special education teacher if she felt parents had lower expectations of their children with disabilities and did not hold them accountable. The answer was a resounding yes, with reports of how frequently smartphones or tablets are handed to children the moment school is dismissed. Another panelist responds from personal experience, “I believe that for exceptional children or neurodivergent children, a lot of people who don’t know better have lower expectations for them and this persists throughout adulthood. I’ve been on panels as a researcher and [been] asked hard questions… I’ve been on panels as an autistic person, and they don’t ask us anything. They email us all the questions beforehand, and they’re very, very simple, and we go around the room, and we each say a few words. They assume we can’t have a conversation. And, I think that holding people, holding disabled children to high standards is very important.”

For dancers with physical disabilities and mobility issues, there remain concrete barriers to their full participation as artists in the field. Far too many dance studios are housed in inaccessible buildings and theaters are often designed with limited backstage access, even to bathrooms. Some performing arts centers recognize the need to provide access to training, rehearsing, and performing for dancers with disabilities, others do not. Educating the public about access and inclusion remains a significant issue to address.

As the panel portion wound down, the moderator asked a final question, “When you’re existing in the margins there’s an opportunity, right? You’re all working with populations and people that have existed in the margins…. some of you… have existed in the margins. So, thinking about that, what are the opportunities?” Each panelist offered closing words on this issue that left us with a sense of possibility:

“So, if you’re in the margins, if you’re not being done yet, it frees you up to do anything like, so I think that’s a beautiful thing.”

“ … because I’m part of it, it’s a group for autistic researchers, we share resources with each other, we talk, and it’s a small group because not everybody gets to call themselves a researcher. You kind of have to get to a weird point in academia where you can call yourself that. And, some of the people that I’ve come across are doing really rigorous things, really high standard-y things and one woman in the group is in the Ph.D. program doing alternative communication, she uses the touch thing, and there’s this other woman who’s non-speaking entirely and has an aide who does typing and she writes book chapters and articles that are published. There are lots of people who are doing things from the margins, and it looks different but, it’s immeasurable how valuable it is.”

“ When you bring people who move very, very differently together in different apparatus, you know the vocabulary is radically expanded, rather than limited, so I think that’s one of the opportunities… expanding movement possibility.”

“I really like this intersectionality of all of these issues that, to me, it becomes a practice that each of us has to do to, none of us are really completely living our life with full diversity and inclusion and that we all have to keep looking at where are my blind spots? Where are the places that I’m not, including or not considering this possibility or people? How can I widen my thinking? How can I widen my creativity around it?”

“And, dance is such a beautiful way to do that. We’ve had the opportunity to perform for thousands of kids who are getting a very, very different look at what dance is, what ability is, how people work together, across difference, so that’s the great thing, and that’s the opportunity that our field has, is that we can go in and can model these different levels of equity and these different ways that we’re including people, and it’s just what we do.”

And, “It can start very young, and if it does, I feel like that’s the best way change is… with those little kids.”

Describing Pamela Wolfberg’s Integrated Playgroups® as a model of inclusion, a panelist describes what can be, “there’s never any attempt to use any therapies to make the children stop behaving the way they behave, they’re included the way they are. If they’re doing something, a little different [and] everybody gets used to it…”

In 2000 there was very little awareness of dance accessibility in the Bay Area except for AXIS Dance Company, and in 2018 there are new accessibility issues we’re grappling that need to be documented because we’ll be asking different questions in 2028. And there will be new levels of accessibility then, and again at a new level in 2038. We want to tell funders and other stakeholders that this evolution is what we’re documenting and we’re not counting the number of individuals in each program, we’re acknowledging change.

Each year panelists share their favorite resources for physically integrated dance:

AXIS Dance Company for training, jams, and advocacy:

The Future of Physically Integrated Dance in the USA, report published in 2017 by AXIS Dance Company:

Autism Institute, for integrated playgroups:

Autonomous Press, for books on the subject:

Making an Entrance: Theory and Practice for Disabled and Nondisabled Dancers, written by Adam Benjamin, published in 2013 by Routledge

California State University East Bay for classes open to the community and a Creativity Lab for students with autism:

Freedom to move: Movement and dance for people with intellectual disabilities, written by Kim Dunphy and Jenny Scott, published in 2003 by Dance-Movement Therapy Association of Australia.

Nick Walker, and Aikido master focused on neurodiversity and cognitive liberty:

Dance for Connections for their Octaband community stretch tools

Plymouth University:

Play and Imagination in Children with Autism, written by Pamela Wolfberg, published in 2009 by Teachers College Press.

This article appeared in the January/February 2019 edition of In Dance.

Patricia Reedy is the Executive Director of Creativity & Pedagogy at Luna Dance Institute. A lifelong learner, she enjoys sharing her inquiry process with others.