Do you ‘do’ disabled dancing?

Written by Kate Marsh

Image copyright Matthew Niemc

"In part, the art of our dance is to exploit or expand on the quirkiness of our form and to cultivate the interesting style such bodies can produce."
Simi Linton, 2006

The language used to talk about dance and disability has a complex history, steeped in sociological, psychological and cultural frameworks of understanding.  Terminology has fallen in and out of favour as perceptions alter and the position of the disabled person in the world shifts and changes.

Dance itself also has a long history of complex and codified terminology. In part derived from the origins of ballet, a language has been created to describe, analyse and talk about dance practice. It is widely recognised that this codified form, which favours labelling, distinction and hierarchies of both ability and bodies, excludes the impaired body.

If dancers with disabilities are required to ‘fit into’ existing frameworks of how the practice of contemporary dance is understood, studied and critiqued. They are instantly disadvantaged. Their bodies will only ever afford them an interpretation of the rigid definitions dominant in dance training and criticism.

In my own experience within dance there have been attempts to ‘fit’ dancers with disabilities into the existing canon of language in dance. How can someone without legs or using a wheelchair ‘do’ a plié? Although there is a value here in working towards ‘inclusion’ it is a scenario that for me raises the question of inclusion on whose terms?

What are the implications of using a framework of ‘normative’ language to train, critique and educate a generation of dancers with ‘non-normative’ bodies? Surely this creates an environment where success is limited to those dancers who can assimilate most closely to a ‘traditional’ dancer’s body and those who cannot or who choose not to are automatically marginalised as ‘other.’

In my recent research I have become increasingly interested in challenging existing research, which often asks what can be done to ‘include’ disabled artists into ‘mainstream’ dance. My on-going observations, conversations and practice with a myriad of brilliant, experienced, creative, professional, successful and exciting disabled dance artists has provoked me to ask instead what can ‘mainstream’ dance learn from these artists.

I feel there is a need to question notions of being ‘allowed’ to enter into a world full of tradition and prescribed aesthetics and models of training and practice informed by long standing assumptions of ‘norms’ in dance.  As disabled artists should we feel lucky to be afforded this access? Is there a point where what we have learnt and what we know about dance can feedback into wider frameworks of what we all understand as dance knowledge?  As disability studies scholar Simi Linton suggests:

"If disabled dancers merely mimicked or recapitulated standard dance, albeit in alternative ways. We would not have an impact on the art form called dance."
Simi Linton, 2006

We exist in a time in dance practice where established disabled performers are making innovative, relevant and beautiful work. This feels like a time to ask, why is this a genre separate to dance in more general terms? Do we need to label it ‘disabled dance’?

Conversely of course, there is a question about the value of labelling in dance, after all dancers with disabilities have been relatively absent from our shared dance history. Without the ‘label’ is there a danger that these dancers and their work become invisible in a broader (and often saturated) landscape in dance?

I don’t know the definitive answer here, but what I have learnt and continue to learn is that we should keep questioning the language we use and the boxes we tick relating to artists and their practice.

I am often contacted by undergraduate students asking for information or advice towards a module on dance and disability, or a dissertation on the same subject. I am always struck by the slightly odd nature of these inquiries – that a student of dance can elect to study ‘disability.’ For me, there is an inherent suggestion here that it remains acceptable for disabled dance artists to be on the periphery of dance.

We need to develop strategies and language that feel useful and appropriate for all dancers and aspects of training and practice. Frameworks of understanding that truly account for the ‘whole’ of dance, rather than one, which speaks to a minority and allows in those who can ‘pass.’

Linton, S (2006) My Body Politic – a memoir University of Michigan Press

Kate Marsh is a PhD candidate on the AHRC funded project InVisible Difference which investigates disability, dance and law. To read more about InVisible Difference, visit the website.

Do you ‘do’ disabled dancing?