I am trying to learn to see the way I dance and know that it can be beautiful. This is something that has taken – that continues to take – a lot of practice. There are many reasons that this is true. As a disabled person, a queer person from a working class family, there are a lot of ways I have internalised that I am doing “having a body” wrong. Some of this has been through explicit teaching: nasty comments and catcalls, unresponsive or openly ableist professors, inaccessible spaces, oppressive and reductive media representation. I am hyper-aware of the fact that the majority of disabled characters on television are in “American Horror Story;” that the only bodies I see in the media or in everyday life that move like mine are in zombie movies. This has taught me a lot about hiding, about apology.
Many of the ways I have internalised a certainty of my own wrongness, though, have been through omission. The reason that the majority of disabled characters can be found in horror is not only that disabled bodies have been coded as monstrous – symbolic of the threat of impending sickness or harm, age or impairment – but also that they are so rarely included anywhere else.
Disability is still closely associated with death, or some amorphous, terrible un-life, (think: zombies). Or, disability is linked with dependency, which is always already assumed to be something exclusively bad and shameful, as if interdependence were not a foundation of all of our lives. Because of this, real disabled stories not written through the lens of horror, or charity, or medicalization, or inspiration porn, rarely exist in arts and culture.
All of this to say that I am not used to seeing bodies like mine in the world, as access barriers keep us from each other, and societal assumptions keep us from having space in the arts and culture. This phenomenon extends to the dance world. Ostensibly, it is exactly this sort of erasure and exclusion that integrated dance as a movement is fighting against. I say “ostensibly” not because I question the reality of the inclusive intentions or the creative, beautiful, compassionate power of some of the dance work being created. However, I have begun to notice certain patterns in disability dance that I wish to challenge.
While integrated dance is undoubtedly doing incredible work, and has surely changed my life, showing me that I have the capacity to make beautiful art and to be recognised for this beauty, its impact for me has been limited by the fact that even in integrated spaces I have seen so few bodies like mine. In my experience, it appears that integrated dance has begun to develop its own aesthetic patterns. Namely, most (although – and I really want to stress this – certainly not all) disabled performers have bodies that are able to move like those of their non disabled counterparts, save whatever piece of their body can be understood by an audience as being affected by their disability. For instance, a common integrated dancer might be a manual wheelchair user whose arms move in typical ways read as non disabled, or amputees and dancers with Down Syndrome, whose bodies likewise are able to approximate this standard movement quality.
This allows for integrated dance to be judged in much the same ways as non-integrated dance is. The standards of quality and dance technique may remain relatively unchanged as long as the bodies performing are still able to move as bodies in dance always have. The aesthetic of disabled dance, then, is arguably in large part non disabled; the putting of traditional movement into new and unusual, but comparably mobilising, bodies.
Therefore, we, as an integrated dance community, still have a lot of work to do. And it is good work. Good, exciting work that could teach us new things about the potential of bodies and performance. What could choreography be in a body like mine, that is crooked and unstable at times? The uncertainty could be possibility. It could be generative and challenging. I hope we continue to work towards creating space for those new explorations, harnessing the incredible power of the work already being done, honoring it, stretching it. There are so many other bodies to find dance in. And the thought of that is so beautiful, it takes my breath away.