On the outside loooking in: Thoughts on dance and disability

I feel the need of sharing some thoughts (old and new) on dance and disability. Or what should I say, different dancing bodies. Questions around who dance is made for and made of. And how to make dance more diverse. I decided to write this post in English, to make sure I include all my amazing dancer colleagues all over the world. Some of you might disagree with me, and that is completely ok, I really just want more openness, awareness and discussion. And I would like to offer my voice in to this.

foto: Live Rosenvinge Jackson (CODA)

Most of you know my story, about not really fitting in to the dance world. About struggling to find my place, working so hard to become "good enough". And to be honest, the unedited truth really is that no one wanted me. Even when I contacted dance schools, telling them openly about my disability, they just told me I had to go through auditions like everyone else and I would be judged on the same criteria. Fair enough, I did want to be a professional dancer, I did want to train for jazz and modern dance. And I get the fact that I would never be able to fouetté, or do proper pirouettes, grand jetes and SO ON. But hey, who´s to decide I couldn´t still have had a dance career? Who´s to decide that I wasn´t entitled to a chance to be come the best dancer I could possibly be from my potential? These people robbed me of the opportunity to learn, and develop skills needed to succeed. I never got a formal training that I could make use of as a teacher or a choreographer. And do we really still think that only the normative dancer with a perfected technique can teach others, or even make art? I still feel like I have so much unused and unseen potential, because no one bothered to spend time on training technique with someone who just looked like a bad dancer. To be clear, I am forever grateful for the amazing teachers that I have met, and the ones that have made me feel at home in the studio, in their classes. I am now addressing the more structural problems of the educational system and the very conservative culture and attitudes that I did quite often meet.

And why, in the 20th century, do we still favor normativity in such a degree. Actually, isn´t contemporary art supposed to explore the non-normative? If art cannot be innovative and inclusive, then what can, really? I am not in any way saying that the time of the physically strong and abled bodied dancers is past us. I am not saying that is not interesting and beautiful in itself, I am simply questioning weather this has to ne the norm. And I question why I was shut out of something that to me seems should have been the one place that really had the potential of including me.

These past few days, being in Stockholm, working with the Diverse Nordic Voices Coreograpthic Initiative (DNVCI), I have reflected a lot around how to approach this issue. And through this reflection process I realized I haven´t really been any "better". For years I have been holding on to this idea about making dance with people with different bodies and disabilities. I have wanted to create art that is norm breaking, inclusive and that celebrates diversity. Yes, there definitely is a political motivation, I can´t get away from that… because I have this strong "want", to see more of these different non-normative bodies. I want so badly to show the world that a dancer is not only a "prima ballerina". At the same time I have been emphasizing that it is not about disability itself. It is not about creating art merely by exposing our bodies, and thereby saying that we are "included" or "integrated" in to an already existing scene. But how can we really work and create within these opposites? And am I really just a hypocrite for wanting to “use” these bodies for some higher purpose?

I never felt like I fit in. Because I didn´t have the normative dancer-body I couldn´t do all the stuff a technically strong dancer was supposed to do. So I used to wish for a more visible disability. Because then maybe someone would take me more seriously, then maybe someone would want to teach me, because I was so different that it made them intrigued, so different that it was "cool". I have wished for a wheelchair to do cool tricks with. I have wished for no legs, so that people would go "woooow, look at her, how amazing that she dances". I have wished for someone to notice me and think; "I want to turn this girl in to an incredible performer". I wanted to be seen as hard working and talented, not just as someone who couldn´t really get it right. Cause I didn´t even fit in with “the disabled”. Even an integrated company would probably never hire me. I am not physically interesting enough, and again, I didn´t have the proper training. So crap... why do I, out of all people, want to make dance with people with visible disabilities? Honestly, I can´t find the answer anymore… but maybe working with the less visible is too challenging… and also way too personal.

From workshop with Diverse Nordic Coreographic Initiative - Photo: Live Rosenvinge Jackson (CODA)

Last week in Stockholm, I heard Dinis Machado, a Portuguese dance artist, talk about his work with dancers with and without disabilities. And he told me about this dancer with a slight degree of Cerebral Palsy. An artistic director had actually wanted her to wear a huge brace on her leg, just to make it more obvious that she was disabled. You couldn´t really tell that she was disabled when she was on stage, and that, according to him, just made her look like a "bad dancer". Listening to Dinis telling this story, all I could think was “THIS IS THE STORY OF MY LIFE”. But how do we create dance art that can communicate different esthetics and show non-normative bodies without focusing on their disabilities? And how can we truly include bodies like ours without making it about inclusion in it self, and without exaggerating the differences.

My desire to make a dance performance with people with different bodies specifically has suddenly become a bit more faint. I am not saying I don´t still have a dream to create something with different dancing bodies, but it has shifted somehow. I don´t really think that showing the world how cool disabled people can be solves our problem. Because the true problem is that we still categorize, and we might never stop doing that. Even if there is an open call for a cast consisting of dancers with disabilities some dancers (like me) might still not be "disabled enough". Maybe the answer is to create dance art that has less of an emphasis on the bodies and the abilities or limitations. Maybe it has to be more about searching for a movement quality, or a movement language, rather than the shape of the body. I guess if I ever were to cast a show and choreograph something, I would search for dancers that communicated the intention that I was offering, rather then communicating diversity in itself.

But then again, if I were to make something, I would WANT different bodies. Because only through exposing diversity we can really say that dance is for everyone. I guess I don´t know what has to come first, the hen or the egg… Maybe we need productions consisting of differently abled dancers to make sure that these people dare to come to the dance community, and also to start warming the dance community towards letting these people in, and really create a need for a more open space. But then again, to be able to make these kinds of productions we need the access to differently bodied dancers. Hiring someone simply because they are disabled is not really offering an honest entrance and participation, is it? Again, maybe it has to be more about the way we move. Together and separately, about searching for new and different qualities of movement, to enrich the field of dance art.

So what about me? The circle feels complete. I might have had some experiences, defied some boundaries, but I am still on the outside looking in. Being a part of DNVCI, I feel like it is expected of me to create something, something that I can present, and show to others. And I guess it is not only expected of me I from others, but it is something that I would want for myself. Because I am longing for results, I am longing to prove that I am useful somehow. Also I really just have a desire to dance, to move. I have a need to teach myself how to move in tune with my body, to explore how I can create interesting movement even though I don´t have a normative body. I want to feel abled, not disabled – particularly in the dance world. Yet I still have the need for someone to work with me, not against me. I have had the idea of creating a solo, to work on my own movement qualities, to tell my own story maybe. But then again, that feels like I am still on the outside. It feels like I am accepting that the only way that I could be useful as a dancer is if I do it on my own, on the outside, dancing by myself, not with the others. And honestly, it still not only pisses me off, but it breaks my heart. But maybe telling our stories is our only real way in, our opportunity to enter the scene. So how do I tell that story, how do I create something from the invisible stuff, how do I create beautiful from the “ugly”. How do I do it all by myself? Will anyone ever want to work with me? I don´t have any answers, just a thousand questions.

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