Saturday, January 12, 2008

What is Physically Integrated Dance: II

In my last post on integrated dance, I said that the second most defining element of PID are the interactions between the dancers. I'm on tricky ground here, because interactions are a powerful part of any kind of dance with more than one person on stage, even if there is no formal partnering happening. So, it seems a little strange to rest my definition of integrated dance on interactions. But I am creating a definition of PID as an art form that interprets assistive equipment as equal to the usual fleshly parts and in so doing redefines the dancer's body. You can see this in the kind of choreography that facilitates the interactions between dancer and equipment.

Two experiences led me to this approach to defining integrated dance. The first derives from my early dance classes. I was interested in finding out more about physically integrated dance, so I spent a lot of time reading articles about and reviews of AXIS Dance Company. Prominent in nearly all of the early online material is the writer's shock/surprise at the ways in which the choreographers treated the dancers' assistive technology as real partners in the dance. This is particularly true of the dancers who used crutches or canes and, stunningly true in the moment at which one dancer removes a prosthetic leg and allows it to stand before her, as a partner might, before tipping it over.

The second derives from a moment in an improv-contact workshop where I noticed that the dancer I was partnering with had actually created a field of energy and contact with my chair. The centre of movement originated down with the chair front and we both danced with an awareness of this part of the chair as the centre of our contact.

Common to both these experiences is an understanding of the equipment that disabled dancers may use. In the first case, I was surprised to keep reading about the critics'/reviewers' surprise. To me, it seemed like a no-brainer to understand equipment as a part of the body. The idea that disabled people see their equipment as extensions of their body is a commonplace in disabled communities. And, if equipment is a part of the body, it seems natural to dance with it. For the outside world, however, it seems hard to imagine wheelchairs and canes, etc., as body parts; they are, rather, medical devices. Inanimate objects, props -- at best, examples of human ingenuity.

The interactions with assistive technology change the range and possibilities of partnering; this new kind of partnering I see as definitive of integrated dance. This is one of the most stunning aspects of integrated dance -- it is also the source of many of its risks. The least mature choreography does not understand the mechanics and physical possibility of any assistive devices in either partnering or in individual movement. Nor does it realize their potential as active partners in a dance. The best choreography does, and it is stunning to watch. When prosthetic legs function as legs without comment and when they are highlighted functioning at the best of their abilities, that, to me, is strong dance. When wheelchairs are flaunted as medical devices with no artistic value, interpreted as symbols of disability, then the choreography is not strong.

The partnering in integrated dance differs from that of conventional dance when the assistive technology is alive and active. The interactions between dancers, disabled and non, and the equipment differs from those of conventional dance. These interactions and forms of partnering are, in my view, among the most important things that integrated dance brings to the mainstream dance world.


  1. Why wouldn't the ADs be part of the dance? After all, fans, scarves and other accoutrements have been part of dance for centuries!


  2. not to mention that many non-disabled people have experience with feeling that equipment is an extension of the body: I'm thinking of cyclists & the efforts to get a bike fitted to an individual body & the sense of unity felt while exercising (all memory, still can't ride a bike, but it's amazing how fully the physical memory returned when I read this post!). Is all that surprise simply a rhetorical trope (typed tripe--that too)?