Dance and Disability Leads to Discovery

David Johnston

Our summer intern attends and reflects on the Dance/NYC’s Dance. Disability. Artistry. conference.


The stage lights have dimmed and the music is softly starting to crescendo as two dancers arrive on stage, ready to create. The dancers are using unique instruments given to them—the body—to its fullest capacity as they bend, twist, spin and race around the stage. With each movement, they intertwine with the mechanics and wheels that make up their physical body. With the blend of metal extensions and vehicles that move them around the stage, these dancers create flawless art: a result of countless hours of practice and understanding of their unique make-up.


“Disability. Dance. Artistry.”


The 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was last week, as I took part in a conference put on by Dance/NYC filled with discussions that forced me to redefine the meaning of dance and art.

The conference I attended was composed of a series of panels about the world of dance for the physically impaired. There is a common misconception that those who have physical impairments cannot dance. In reality there is a whole world of dancers who suffer from physical disability, but moving and dancing is their greatest therapy. During this conference, I realized how to restructure the concept of disability to help it integrate within society rather that continue to isolate itself.


Simi Linton began the conversation with a keynote introduction. An advocate for disability, Simi uses a wheelchair after a car accident in the 1970’s after which she immediately turned to the world of advocacy and supporting dance and other arts. Her mission was to support the disabled in equal opportunities and consideration in a world that quickly begins to label and isolate in the form of programs and institutions. Simi comments on how she wants the world to start using more deliberate language when referring to “the disabled.” She studies through the lens of society’s role in encompassing disability, rather than disabled people working within society. A professor of disability studies, Simi talks about how this growing field is appearing in numerous college institutions and providing opportunities for more people to discuss the integration of disabled culture in all art forms.


The first panel at this event featured Kitty Lunn and Alice Sheppard who both are serious dancers, but also use wheelchairs in their daily life. Kitty, growing up as an accomplished ballet artist, was struck with an accident and had to teach her body how to adapt. I have great respect for Kitty’s artistry, as she shows daily discipline and still trains her students aggressively, regardless of their impairments. She does not pity anyone on stage because they are disabled; rather she opens up a world to let them discover the potential their bodies have for art. Kitty demands skill. She coined a methodology for teaching ballet for physically disabled people and began teaching it around the country. One of her students was Alice Sheppard who only came to dance in her 30’s after meeting a disabled artist. After years of practice and learning to use the instruments she has been given, Alice is a now a renowned dancer.


It is important as an artist to acknowledge that the physically impaired performers are developing a unique skillset, just like any other artist. Yet, these artists face the pressures of “normative standards.” For example, as musicians are asked to conform to classical music standards, these dancers are told in society to conform to typical body norms. But, as Kitty put it, once you begin to let go in the effort to conform, your body reveals natural rhythms and movements that are innovative to the creation of your “own art.”


After lunch, the panelists spoke on how to implement disability strategies into their art. It was consistently reiterated that there are two perspectives: integration of disability for the sake of the disabled, and integration of disability for the sake of dance (art). While both are intriguing perspectives, the panel focused on the dance and how disability can be innovative and creative within the actual art. The quote ”art is a testing ground for society’s most arduous needs” beautifully sums up how we as a society challenge conventions through art with the skills of the disabled and create inventive new styles through this experimentation.


Arts institutions have made efforts to be more inclusive, but the real truth lies in the people, education and community. What I saw at this conference was a developing support system that happens in small scales and occurs through education. The population must be educated in the nuances, skills, and theories behind disability to fully understand how it can be incorporated into the arts. Dance NYC’s “Disability. Dance. Artistry.” began to take the first steps in incorporating this community into a conversation beyond artists and spreading it to multidimensional levels of the greater art system.


Post a comment