Friday, April 30, 2010

Movement Is Radical

I have been able to contribute to all the Blogging Against Disablism Days so far. Each year, I feel myself taking on new challenges and growing as a writer. Most importantly, I am thrilled every year to see the spread of what is now a massive event. To the Golden Fish and all who support her in making this celebration possible, I thank you.

This year, my post about movement and dance comes in two parts. The first deals with disablism from a more familiar angle: from non-disabled to disabled. The second looks at how -- possibly in response to the first -- the disabled world can be as disablist as the non-disabled world.

Twitter and Wheelchair Dancing

In addition to posting the almost daily tweet, I use Twitter as a kind of pulse/trend source about disability and dance. Late at night, while the Wizard sleeps the sleep of the innocent, I search for "wheelchair dancer." It was a vanity search at first. Then, after the rise of Glee, it became a kind of cultural barometer search.

The results are always interesting. On Friday and Saturday nights, there is usually a tweet and re-tweet from a nightclub about some "dude in a chair" "trying to dance." (Why is it always a dude? Where are all the women?) Some weeks, the dude gets or essays a lapdance -- the tweeter is often shocked. Some nights, the tweeter just expresses amazement and/or disgust at the idea of a disabled person dancing. Sometimes, the wheelchair dancer probably unbeknownst to himself is a source of hilarity. Sometimes, he seems like a target; the tweeter wants him removed from the club.

I always followup on the tweeter. As far as I can tell, it's not the same person. Week after week, in North America it seems that there are a bunch of wheelchair-using clubbers getting their groove on. HOORAYY!!

At other times, wheelchair dancer tweets are about Artie and Glee. They almost uniformly express surprise that the "best" dancer in the cast is prevented from dancing because he is in a chair. Either that or the tweeter expresses some regret that they won't get to see how good he is "really."

In both contexts, I detect a sense of surprise about the possibility for movement. How and why is it, the subtext seems to read that wheelchair users want to/can be seen to dance? What constitutes dancing? I am surprised that this is still a question. The Nielsen ratings for Glee are pretty good (sigh). Nearly 28,000 people submitted online auditions for Glee (a huge number). As much as I hate the show, it has certainly made wheelchair dancing more visible than any art company -- it simply has the reach. (Dancing on Wheels, the BBC show has done similar yeoman's work in the UK, and, yes, that is the last time I will be speaking positively of the show). At any rate, it should no longer be a surprise that people using wheelchairs can -- and like -- to dance.

And yet.

Dance Is For Everyone Except...

It's Bay Area National Dance Week here in, well, the San Francisco Bay Area. Essentially, it's a dance festival with open workshops, rehearsals, outdoor performances, classes, etc.... They have a really cool understanding of dance:
  • We envision a Bay Area that celebrates dance in all its forms.
  • We envision a Bay Area that is passionate for, knowledgeable about, and participates in dance.
  • We envision a Bay Area that values dance as a cornerstone of civic pride and identity.
  • We envision a Bay Area that recognizes dance as a defining characteristic of our humanity.
Though no one ever lives up to these -- or any such words -- in their fullest senses, these ideals are at the basis of an inclusive and consciously exploring community of which I am happy to be a member.

I contrast this with an email I recently received for a dance and disability workshop on the East Coast. I'm going to be careful here, because it's not clear where the language originated. Seeking participations for a dance workshop that sought to explore how the everyday movement of disabled people could become part of a dance vocabulary, a project coordinator sent out an "outreach" email in search of, and I quote capitalization and all, "12 Independent-living, intellectually rigorous, physically active adults with disabilities."

The code here shocked me.

What on earth was meant by "independent-living" as a requirement? The disability rights movement has fought long and hard to support disabled people living outside the institution, but should independent living really be a gate-keeping code for participation in a dance workshop? Because gate-keeping it is. I think "independent living" is here supposed to signify being "unimpaired enough to live outside an institution or facility." With that code is implied the idea of living alone (more or less). But let's look at that.

What is the role of assistance here? How much assistance can one take before being disqualified from this workshop? What counts as assistance? What kinds of assistance are permissible or disqualifying for that matter. Assuming you aren't counting the number of people in a house or apartment, how would anyone begin to judge whether or not "independent living" with regard to a particular impairment was a significant barrier to participation in a dance workshop?

Dance is for people of all physical and cognitive abilities. In my own work, I have often wondered about the grey areas between facilitated movement and partnering. I've heard talk about whether or not independent movement should be a requirement for participation. I've wondered about it myself. When someone shows up and their companion/attendant/caregiver both speaks for them and moves them, I've frequently felt uncomfortable. Does this person want to be here?

There are several ways of obtaining, registering and acknowledging consent. More important to me, however, is the question of prejudice about what "counts" as dance movement. When we think only of the dancing, it turns out that there are no hard and fast borderlines between facilitated movement (as a therapeutic for someone who "can't") and a kind of partnering. Movement alone is not the decision-making point. Understanding partnering as a kind of facilitated movement and vice versa makes me want to rely on the notion of consent. Not on the movement as movement. And making that distinction reaffirms for me the importance of keeping dance workshops open.

Let me be clear. I am not saying that there aren't distinctions to be made or that making them is not hard. But I do think it is unreasonable to disqualify disabled people from a workshop designed for disabled movers that seeks to explore dance vocabulary as it can be made by disabled bodies simply because they aren't the "right" kind of disabled movers.

I find it unacceptable to make judgments about participation on the grounds of "intellectual rigor" -- non disabled dancers aren't necessarily the most intellectually rigorous of people. I find it unacceptable to judge degree of physical activity. The mainstream dance world admires -- nay, prizes -- virtuosity in a dancer. But virtuosity is not synonymous with technical difficulty. A "simple" movement of the eye can be virtuosic because of what it communicates and not because of its degree of technical simplicity. Movement itself is not exclusive to those who scale walls and leap tall buildings.

I understand that formulating virtuosity in this way may well be a response to the ongoing hostility and the dismissal disabled movers experience when we try to engage the non-disabled dance world. But there is no excuse for perpetuating the experience and for turning on each other.

Movement Is The Movement

These experiences teach me that movement -- no, moving as a disabled person -- is the most radical thing I/you can possibly do. Let me say this again. Moving your body is possibly the most radical thing you, I, and we can do. I have often danced around this topic, saying things like "Mobility is at the core of the movement." Now, I want to pop a wheelie, spin around, turn a cartwheel and say loud and clear: "Movement is the movement."

When you are out on the street -- move. When you are gathered with friends and family, move. In a store, a restaurant, on the bus ... in your car. Does anyone remember this flash mob dance video (London, Liverpool Station -- as an advertisement for T-Mobile)? There was a flash mob dance this week in the Bay Area. Gather your friends or perhaps go alone. Go to a public place and dance. Go to a local dance class and move.

Dancing. Movement. These are radical acts that shed light and peace in the world.


  1. Yes!

    Dancing in the Bay Area must be incredible.

    Movement is the movement! What a great thing to remember and practice.

  2. I'm going to suggest we all need to learn how to stretch.

    I've really grown to dislike the hierarchy I sometimes see both within/without the disability community that further excludes PWD on the basis of the "severity" of their disability.

    I underwent an annual evaluation of my disability yesterday to get services. It was done respectfully by a very caring nurse and yet as I sat listening to the assistance I need read out loud, page after page, I was thinking about how my "being" in certain places is unwanted because it may create work or inconvenience to others. It may even frighten some. It angers me not to be thought of as independent because I need assistance. Yet I realize that some would rule out my situation as independent living. I find that absurd and ridiculous and narrow minded.

    So of course I agree that terms like independent living should not be a condition of a workshop. I also suggest, dancers or not, we all learn how to stretch so we stop excluding each other for various and sundry reasons that have nothing to do with true "independence".

  3. You bring up a new and fascinating thought here. Independent Living as gatekeeper...that opens up the obvious dismissing of any contribution by those who don't meet that 'standard.'

    I love BADD, I really do. When new ideas come shouting out of the Internets

  4. I miss dance, so much sometimes that I can feel the ache. This post hits so many important points, even though I know it's not for me right now. For now, I'll be content to know that others are dancing, and feeling their movements in my soul.

  5. This was such a great post. I have about a dozen different ideas clamoring to get out on this post, so it's too much.

    I'll just say these couple things:

    1. The gatekeeping is disturbing, on so many levels.

    2. A couple years ago I was barely able to move any of my body, due to pain and other limitations, but an integrated dance teacher set up a class at my house (because my MCS prevents me from going elsewhere), with others with MCS or other disabilities who were MCS-safe. It was wonderful. I loved it, even just spinning, reclining in my pchair.

    Thinking of "assistance" and who is really dancing -- a couple times my service dog did some of my dancing for/with me. He loved it, and I could ask him to move in certain ways to represent the movement I wanted to show. I directed him with hand signals because I was nonverbal. I wonder how one of those gatekeepers would view that. Wonder if they would even realize it was partner dancing.

  6. Beautifully written and so full of truth. So often there is categorization within the realm of those with disabilities that determines who has access to programs, who is considered independent, and who is thought to benefit from experiences like dance. I also love the concept that movement is the movement - that getting out there and doing, being, participating, living, dancing is what will bring change.

  7. Great post. Strange requirements for the workshop. I feel left out of the disability blog world---I am disabled by MS, a chronic, progressive, disease, and while I am updated on MS issues...I try to also join the abled disabled but, somehow I fall short. Being unable to use restrooms in clubs, finding a safe way there and back, the heat, many things prevent me from dancing in my w/c. I sing. But I used to dance every week until MS. So many people with MS are not in w/c, I really don't fit in anywhere---I am gay, but disabled and gay, well, the gay bloggers lose interest fast. Story of my life. Oh well.

  8. All movement starts in our brain and hearts! Love the post Wheelchair Dancer, great contribution! Interesting thoughts.

  9. Movement is the movement - LOVE that! Thanks!