Saturday, October 22, 2011

Watching Disabled People Dance

So, you are on your way to your first physically integrated performance, but you don't know what to expect or how to think about what you might see.  Allow me, if you will, to offer a somewhat biased guide.

  • Relax.  You've done most of your part part by showing up.  Sit back and let the performers do theirs.  There's an unwritten contract in performance.  Both parties have to do their part to make the performance successful.

    In buying the ticket, you promise to show up, turn off your cellphone, put away your camera, open your mind and watch.  The performers, in offering a concert, promise to show their best work -- work that transcends the ordinary, to honour your intelligence and spirit, to perform and not just execute.
  • Don't worry about meaning.  Even if the dance follows a story line, you can create your own meaning.  In fact, you are pretty much expected to create your own meaning.  It's like reading a poem or a book.  Or even seeing a film.  It's personal.  To you.

    And related to that, don't worry about missing anything.  There's a lot happening on stage.  You can't see it all.  Your eye will be drawn to some things and not others.  That's OK.  That's part of how you create your meaning.  That's part of performance.
  • On stage.  You don't have to have a long background in dance to appreciate what's happening on stage.  You can enjoy the shapes, lines, turns, jumps, lifts, emotion, light, colour ... whatever ... without having to name it or know, technically, how it was composed.
  • The performers with and without disabilities are expecting you to look at them.  It's not staring, if you watch carefully.  But don't try and figure out who is or isn't disabled and what their disabilities are.  This is not a medical show; it's an art performance.
  • All the performers, disabled and non, retain their personhood, no matter what equipment they use or don't use.  Wheelchair users don't become chairs; non-disabled dancers aren't just bodies.  But don't assume that the work is about the dancers and their lives and bodies, unless it is explicitly framed as such.  The work is just that work.  A certain amount of effort has gone into creating a thing for you to see -- it's not a reflection of reality.  Nor is it a projection of your fears and expectations.
  • Speaking of your fears and expectations.  Leave them at the door as best you can.  That's a good way to see *any* work of art, but it is especially important when seeing work that includes disabled artists.  There is so much societal prejudice around disability that leaving that behind will open you up to a new understanding of the world.
  • It is absolutely your right to like or not to like what you see.  I hope you will like it for reasons more powerful than your belief that those poor disabled people are inspiring and that it is so nice that those other dancers help them.  I hope you will dislike it because the choreography, staging, presentation or whatever did not appeal to you.  And I hope you will have the opportunity to express both your likes and dislikes to the performers.  We welcome feedback that engages with our work.  We don't need to hear your commentary on our bodies, etc.  Questions about our personal lives ...  assumptions, etc.
  • Physically integrated dance is a powerful form of contemporary dance.  Let us do our job: we will take you on a journey to new and unexpected places.


  1. You put this so beautifully!

  2. Wayne Wagner7:50 PM

    Saw wheelchair dancing for the first time last night at Strathmore in Montgomery County. I was amazed - at the muscled torso of the dancer, at the design of his wheelchair, and most of all the fact that this was good dancing, period!

    To call the wheelchairist I saw "disabled" seems a gross misnomer. If he was any more "enabled" he'd have to be wearing rocket boots.