It is now over twenty years since I began my dance career and I have now reached the ripe old age of 50. This is pretty old for most dancers. However, during that time I explored my dancing in and out the wheelchair. Of course the use of my arms and hands has begun to take its toll. I suppose the day will come when I have to think about using the chair even more and then I guess… Nevertheless, I will start to look at new ways of working. Until that day however, I will enjoy the freedom of expression that being away from my chair gives me.
If we go back in time… How did I discovered dancing was without a chair for me? When I think back to when I went to my first dance workshop, it’s hard to believe that I didn’t leave my wheelchair at all. Because the idea of ‘dancing’ was a bit strange to me and that environment was new to me. I suppose for the first time in my life I was a bit shy. The day was spent mostly working through improvisation, so I was able to work from my chair using the ideas presented to us. It all felt very clumsy and awkward to me and I think that was as much to do with nerves as much as anything else. However, the opportunity arose to go back and spend a week working with the company on a week long residency. Again for the first few days of the residency I stayed in and worked from my chair until one day. During one exercise everything changed. We had been working on a way of travelling in a group across the space with at least one member being completely off the ground. In this case, I was the one chosen to be lifted and found myself hanging off the arms of two members of the group. I was lifted from my chair and transported to the other side of the room. Once we arrived, I was lowered to the ground and before anyone could return the chair to me, I jumped up and ran back on my hands and got back in it. I noticed straight away that people were staring. I imagine it was quite a shock to see me move like this for the first time, or indeed anyone move in such a way. I hadn’t given it a thought but the response was quite astounding. For the rest of that day and most of the rest of the residency I spent more time on the floor. I always felt more comfortable working and moving on the floor and it was indeed the way I got around at home most of the time. It also meant that in that time I had developed ‘tricks’ to help me around the house. The most obvious of these was to stretch myself up on one arm against the wall to be able to reach a light switch that was pretty high up on our walls. This trick was something I used during the week as we created a short piece that was due to be performed at the end of the week.
It was after this project that I had the opportunity to join the company and become a full time dancer. It was a big decision. I actually say this ironically as at the time I was very unhappy with my job as a postman, something I had done for over nine years. I had always hoped that I would find something else that would get me out of that kind of mine numbing work that was so repetitive. So, when the opportunity arose, I pretty much said yes immediately.
Since those early tentative ‘steps’, and over the last twenty years, I have always felt more comfortable working free from the chair and on my hands. I feel more free to move and also more able to express myself better than in the chair. The chair of course offers its own possibilities, such giving me height to help with contact work and also works as a solid form of support for another dancer. However, in my early career I always felt it was used as a tool to perform exciting feats such as leaping from it to the floor or from jumping from one chair to another and of course racing around at speed. Of course throwing in the odd wheelie from time was ‘impressive’ too. I was pretty skilled with a chair. Therefor I could turn very quickly. Also a lean in the chair and with one hand stretched out to touch the floor. I found I could move pretty quickly on my hands too, but I always felt more in touch with the dance floor where as sometimes being in the chair can make you feel a little disconnected. This of course is a very personal thought and I am pretty sure that other wheelchair users may say something different.
Now I am working primarily with Stopgap Dance Company and in the future hopefully other companies. As much as I enjoy using my chair from time to time, I find that being free of the chair can help me creatively. When working in the studio during improvisations and creative tasks I feel more inspired in movement terms.. It’s very hard to explain but movements come to me more instinctively than when I have to think about the practicalities of controlling a chair. As I have been a wheelchair user from a very young age I became quite skilled at using one. I think in movement terms you have to find ways of using what you have in order to make things work. Sometimes I feel slightly limited when having to think about moving my chair as well as keeping my arms free for other more intricate movements. This is not a real issue when I work on the floor. There I can use the strength I have in my arms and also my legs to help balance from time to time. Although they are not really in a position to take weight, I find that they have proved very useful. Of course working on the floor is not always appropriate or required, so sometimes I am required to use the chair from time to time. I can of course work with it but for whatever reason it doesn’t come as natural to me.