In Every Body Electric (2018) by Austrian choreographer Doris Uhlich, the entire company is made up of disabled dancers. The theme is the energy created by the back-and-forth movement around them. Bodies that move differently and are different shapes and sizes, tremble, jerk and jiggle on stage, solemn and beautiful, clothed and naked. They represent the sharing of energy: the pleasure that comes from the vibration of music and different parts of the body. The mobility aids and their parts enable revealing and concealing, and a wide range of connections between persons, materials and sounds. As I am accustomed to disabled body shapes, my jaw does not drop, but my mouth open with a liberating laugh. It has been such a long way to this point in the history of dance.
The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities defines a person with a disability as someone who has a long-term permanent disability. However, a person can identify with others and take on a disability identity, even temporarily, or they can be on the borderline between persons with and without disabilities. Disability is always culturally defined, meaning different things to different communities.
In this text, I explore how body normativity and the consequent ableism in dance has been questioned. Ableism is an ideology that defines disability as an abnormality that requires correction and justifies discriminatory policies and practices, such as inaccessible environments. According to ableism, disability is the exception, when in reality human variation is always the norm. In ballet, modern, contemporary and jazz dance, the ideology of ableism has manifested itself in the notion that professionalism requires dancers to be able-bodied. Ableism has in practice meant the exclusion of many persons with disabilities from the field of dance because of aesthetic ideals, the built environment and attitudes.
For example, Jen Blackwell, who has Down’s syndrome, wanted to become a professional community dancer, but after more than a decade of searching, she still could not find the right training for her. She now runs DanceSyndrome, founded in 2009, which focuses on the skills of persons with an intellectual disability in different dance genres and their ability to act as role models in collaboration with non-disabled dance artists. French non-disabled choreographer Jérôme Bel’s interest in the representation of failure in theatre and dance, in turn, brought Theater HORA, a Swiss company of actors with intellectual disabilities, to the attention of the media, research and audiences following art dance in 2012. In 2012, Bel prepared Disabled Theater performances with the group, which provoked a timely reflection on the ethics of dance-making and the role of persons with an intellectual disability in the performing arts. However, before these performances, a number of things had changed in the field of dance, none of which had happened by themselves.
Vaudeville and Trailblazers
Before the emergence of contemporary dance companies for persons with and without disabilities in the 1980s, disabled dancers had long worked as forced labourers in circuses and as dance professionals in theatres for persons with disabilities. Various persons who were unusually large or small, looked or behaved differently from the norm, had been performing more or less professionally in European courts for hundreds of years, but commercial “freak shows” in circuses open to the general public only developed in the 19th century, particularly in Britain and the United States. African American singer, dancer and comedian Harriet Elizabeth Thompson, known by her stage name Princess Wee Wee (1892–?), performed with The Whitman Sisters from the mid-1920s onwards. The Whitman Sisters was a travelling theatre company of four African American sisters with white and Black audiences. A song and dance number by Thompson and Willie Bryant became the main attraction of The Whitman Sisters’ shows. In the number, Thompson, who was of short stature, danced and sang alongside the much taller Bryant. It was a typically comic combination that the audience was used to laughing at. While Thompson’s career is an example of the freakification of persons with disabilities as part of the circus tradition, it also shows that it was possible for a Black disabled woman to make a living as a professional dancer in the popular theatre scene in the early decades of the 20th century.Embed from Getty Images
One of the most famous disabled dancers of the 20th century was African American Clayton “Peg Leg” Bates (1907–1998), who began his career tap dancing in the streets of the small South Carolina town of Fountain Inn. Tap dancing was a common pastime in the Black sharecropper community, where Bates learned to dance even before he was injured in a factory assembly line accident at the age of 12. Bates continued dancing after his left leg was amputated with the help of a peg leg made by his uncle, challenging his friends, winning competitions and performing in minstrel shows, fairs and circuses. Bates became known by the stage name Peg Leg Bates. He developed his own original versions of the two-legged figures. He thus created his own style, which was particularly enhanced by the fact that the tip of his prosthesis was covered on one side with leather for the sound it made and on the other side with rubber for grip. The sound of this wooden leg could not be replicated by other dancers.
Bates moved to Harlem, New York in the 1920s and began his career on Broadway. In 1929, Bates travelled to Paris with the musical Blackbirds of 1928 to perform at the Moulin Rouge. With the advent of film and later television, many tap dancers moved on to perform for the camera. Bates gained particular prominence by appearing repeatedly on The Ed Sullivan Show between 1951 and 1960. Bates’s career lasted from the late 1920s to the 1970s. He performed with the orchestras of musicians such as Count Basie and Duke Ellington.
Of today’s tap dancers, Evan Ruggiero learned to tap dance by watching and imitating surviving footage of Peg Leg Bates dancing. Ruggiero says that many disabled dancers learn their dancing skills directly from each other due to a lack of educational opportunities. When dance groups for persons with and without disabilities began to be set up in the 1970s, one of the aims was to challenge the ableism of education and to give persons with disabilities who were interested in dancing the opportunity to do so. In Finland, the terms disability dance, applied dance, integrated dance and inclusive dance were also used to describe groups of persons with and without disabilities.
In dance research, disability dance is nowadays referred to as both the work of individual disabled dance artists and professional and amateur groups of dancers with and without disabilities. However, one may wonder whether the term disability dance would be more appropriate to describe dance works that deal only with disability. After all, not all dance by persons with a disability is about disability, just as not all dance by women is about womanhood, or dance by Black persons is about Black experience. The term disability dance is appropriate when the emphasis is on the minority cultural role of integrated dance as part of disability culture, i.e. the culture of persons with disabilities. One manifestation of disability culture is disability art, which deals with the experience of disability and advocates for their perspectives. However, a lot of participatory art dance is created by persons with and without disabilities together, but deals with other issues such as climate change, the relationship between humans and animals, or living in the city. It is then worth considering whether disability dance is the right word to describe a dance that takes a stand, or whether it could be replaced by a term that describes the subject of the work rather than the identity of some dancers.
Dancing Wheels and Inclusive Community
Mary Verdi-Fletcher founded the Dancing Wheels Company in 1980 in Cleveland, USA. Dancing Wheels has collaborated with the Cleveland Ballet in the 1990s and with Cleveland Contemporary Dance Theatre in the 2000s. Dancing Wheels consists of a performing group and a school with an accessible studio. In addition to performances, it offers community dance classes, dance workshops, theatre arts camps and dance teacher training. Dancing Wheels’ inclusivity means that the group includes dancers that do and do not use wheelchairs, known as sit-down dancers and stand-up dancers, dancers from different dance backgrounds and experiences, and Black, white and Hispanic dancers.
Verdi-Fletcher, who lives with spinal cord injury, began using the term “inversion” in the late 1980s to describe the working method of Dancing Wheels. In this context it means that any movement or position of a standing dancer can be interpreted or applied to suit a wheelchair user. Similarly, a movement specific to a dancer who uses a wheelchair can be translated to suit a dancer who does not. Dancing Wheels choreographer Marc Tomasic calls the latter option “reverse translation.”
Dancing Wheels also presents events and memories that are relevant to the history of disability. The works are intended to influence audiences and remind them that a lot of work has been done to create an accessible environment. One such work is Walking on Clouds (2005), choreographed by David Rousseve. It tells the story of a 1985 demonstration in which a group of disabled activists stood in front of a bus and refused to let it continue its journey until they had had a discussion about the accessibility of public transport. As a result of the demonstration, the head of the Public Transportation Commission promised wheelchair users change, which ultimately led to the fact that years after this event, persons who use mobility aids were finally able to ride accessible buses in Cleveland.
Dancing Wheels has also worked with non-disabled choreographers. Of the dancers in the group, Kristen Stilwell mentions Dianne McIntyre as a stand-up choreographer who is able to “think outside the box” and work with sit-down dancers when creating choreography. This work helps to break down the ableism that prevails in the dance world and to create new visions of an integrated field for dance professionals.
Candoco and the Transformation of Contemporary Dance
In 1991, Celeste Dandeker and Adam Benjamin founded Candoco, a group of dancers with and without disabilities in the UK, which from the beginning profiled itself as a professional contemporary dance company rather than a niche company for persons with disabilities. The group wanted to be at the centre of contemporary dance, rather than being confined to its margins as an alternative art form or to a place reserved for disability art, from which one could not really question ableist body ideals. The ethos of the group was that dancers who were different from each other had different strengths and talents that complemented each other. Some dance critics initially described Candoco’s performances as a “circus,” “freak show,” or “victimart”; they were unable to see the group’s performances from a non-ableist perspective.
The dance scene changed in the early 2000s. In the 1970s, disabled dancers still mainly worked within institutions for persons with disabilities and then, until the 1990s, only in integrated dance groups. Now they started to appear occasionally in other contexts. The entry of persons with disabilities onto the dance scene made theatres more accessible and brought in new audience that uses mobility aids. Benjamin is already calling for the next stage, where the most prestigious ballet companies take up the cause and allow persons with disabilities to perform with them. Accessibility will then include accessible spaces backstage.
David Toole (1964–2020) was one of the most memorable dancers at Candoco. Toole developed his own airy and powerful hand-dancing technique because he had no legs. He could move from the floor to the wheelchair and out of the chair in the blink of an eye, or swing from one side of the room to the other in a way that gave the impression of ease and freedom of movement. Toole first became interested in dance as an adult after attending Candoco’s workshop and graduating from the Laban Dance Centre (now Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance) in London in 1993. He was already working part-time at Candoco during his studies. He also performed with DV8 Physical Theatre, a company founded by Lloyd Newson in 1986, breaking down the ableist divide between professional dancers with and without disabilities. DV8’s work was already dealing with sexuality from a queer perspective in the 1980s. Disability and queer perspectives proved to have much to offer each other, as seen in works by the Swedish Danskompaniet Spinn and the German DIN A 13, among others.
Benjamin is calling for another change that will affect the entire dance field, of which Spinn is a good example. Something is missing when persons with disabilities demonstrate their speed, strength and athletic performance on the dance floor. There is no time to try new things. But the essence of Spinn is to discuss, experiment and, in a good way, to slowly collaborate in the fields of art and research.
Danskompaniet Spinn is Sweden’s first integrated professional dance company, founded by Veera Suvalo Grimberg in 2010. Spinn performs internationally and collaborates with a wide range of choreographers and musicians, trains new dancers in the SpinnUnga group and holds lectures and workshops. In terms of challenging ableism, Spinn’s most important work is Miramos (2019) for 4–8 year olds, choreographed by Torgunn Wold. In Miramos, four different creatures get to know each other and let go of their prejudices. The creatures have no clear gender. In a discussion after the performance, the children ask lots of questions and the dance group refers to the characters with the Swedish gender-neutral word hen. One of the dancers appears in a rounded costume that covers the whole dancer and their mobility aids. She appears to float on stage. The role was originally created for a wheelchair user who alternates with a dancer who is not a wheelchair user. The stand-up dancer uses a wheelchair for the role because the costume is made to fit the wheelchair. Some children notice the wheels under the costume and ask about them after the performance. If the children start talking about wheelchairs, the dancers discuss it, but do not lead the children into the subject, because they are interested in the children’s own way of conceptualising the world. Miramos also challenges the ableism of the dance scene through visual interpreting or audio description, following the example of Teater23 in Malmö. Visual interpreting makes dance accessible to sight impaired audiences.
In 2016, Spinn was involved in the Moving Beyond Inclusion research project, which used interviews to document the ideas of Spinn artists about the potential of dance to critique and resist norms. One of the interviewees says that this is akin to a queer perspective. For the narrator, working at Spinn is queer activism, acting proudly different or “wrong.” The queer dancer does not always have to conform to the forms of gender or desire that are offered in the name of inclusion in various power relations. Disability activists identify this critical position as “crip,” derived from the word “cripple.”Just as queer was once used in the pejorative sense and was reclaimed, crip takes on the concept in a positive sense. With power relations and body norms still at play in dance, inclusion is still needed. The next stage in dance art has not yet been reached, although Spinn is well underway.
A queer perspective can be identified in Carl Olof Berg’s choreography for Spinn, Skirtpower (2018), which explores sexuality, power and the meanings and sensations associated with wearing a dress. The work explores what it feels like to wear a dress, what it is like to look at someone wearing a dress, what it feels like to be seen wearing a dress, how the dress affects movement, and the movements of the dress itself. The piece is performed by three physically different dancers, a musician and a technician. The latter sometimes moves around the stage in between the dancers. Skirtpower’s scenes contain a vocabulary of movements associated with various sexual acts, from which one can also identify disability-specific physical pleasure. There are clever, humorous and playful lighting solutions, including small sets of lights placed above the dancers’ eyes, following their eyebrows. The dancers are not just spectators in the work, they are also spectators of each other and of the audience.
The Dance Scene in Finland
Professional dance training is slowly opening up to dancers with disabilities and sign language users. In Finland, the dance group Rajat’on for persons with different mobilities was created in 1993 as a branch of the course in Special Groups and Dance at the Turku School of Art and Communication. Ten years later, I cofounded Taika-tanssi, a professionally run amateur group in Turku, whose current members, including the DanceAbility instructor, all have disabilities. During its existence, the group has included people with and without physical and intellectual disabilities and sight impairments. In 2004, professional dance training for students with special needs started at the Keskuspuisto vocational college, Helsinki (now a basic dance qualification at Live Vocational College).
Dance artist Juho Saarinen has brought a deaf perspective to the field of dance by using sign language in his dance works. In 2009, the Zodiak – Centre for New Dance hosted a course on the power of light and darkness by blind theatre artist Johanna Röholm (now Mattila), who danced in a darkened space and learned how to interpret dance descriptions. In 2010, the Helsinki-based integrated dance group Kaaos Company was founded to support the development of dance artists on a level playing field, to blur the differences between persons with and without disabilities through their performances and to create structurally and attitudinally accessible auditoriums that give persons of all abilities equal access to performances. Since 1997, Finland has also been home to Eucrea, an international network for the promotion of creativity and cultural accessibility for persons with disabilities. The activities of these and many other associations have contributed to making dance more accessible.
In 2020, dancer Maija Karhunen researched the status of artists with disabilities and sign language users in Finland. According to her, working for equality and challenging the shortcomings of the art scene at this stage requires a long-term focus from art institutions at the grassroots level, rather than individual experiments. Seminars and workshops need to be brought into line with the obligations of the Finnish Equality Act and Act on the Provision of Digital Services. Students with disabilities may find themselves in an overly responsible position during their studies, having to teach their own teachers about accessibility issues. Artists with disabilities need peer support, collegial learning and information on how to operate in the arts. But mentoring should be available for other roles in the arts, such as funders and critics. Admissions staff need to be given information on how to organise accessible entrance examinations. It is possible for every institution to improve its accessibility in order to break the ableism of the dance scene. Gatekeepers can become allies of disabled dancers.
1 Doris Uhlich. Presentation of Every Body Electric. n.d.
3 According to Article 1 of the UN Convention, “Persons with disabilities include those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.”.
4 Thomson 2005, 40.
5 Zitomer & Reid 2011, 138–139.
6 DanceSyndrome 2019.
7 Theater HORA Geschichte. n.d.
8 Gorman 2017.
9 George 2002, 62.
10 Seibert 2015, 175–177.
11 Seibert 2015, 177–178.
12 Seibert 2015, 334–335. There are some recordings of Bates dancing on YouTube. An example of Bates performing on The Ed Sullivan Show can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NXesFCMwys0 Accessed 8.3.2021.
13 Wong 2020, 4.
14 Repeated in 2019.
15 Pohjola 2018, 26.
16 Sandahl 2002, 17, Kuppers 2017, 278.
17 Arvisto, Lehtiö & Väätäinen 2006, 135.
18 Quinlan & Harter 2010, 379.
19 Quinlan & Harter 2010, 381–383.
20 Quinlan & Harter 2010, 374–375.
21 Quinlan & Harter 2010, 386.
22 Quinlan & Harter 2010, 389–390.
23 Smith 2005, 73–76.
24 Smith 2005, 80–82.
25 Benjamin 2010, 112, 114–115.
26 Kuppers 2017, 278.
27 Albright 2013/1998, 309–310.
28 Hadoke 2020.
29 Leask 1995.
30 Benjamin 2010, 119–121.
31 Spinn has also co-authored guides on accessible dance for performing arts professionals (Spinn Off 2012) and personal assistants for persons with disabilities (Hemma i kroppen 2014).
32 Email from Veera Suvalo Grimberg to the author on 2.3.2021.
33 Interpretation can be recorded or live. Miramos has a recorded interpretation in cooperation with Audiosyn. Danskompaniet Spinn. Inspelad syntolkning Miramos n.d.
34 The word rampa has been used in Finland as a term to create a spirit of togetherness in a competitive dance group, which I have interpreted as a representation of political disability identity and disability humour. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the wheelchair-using dancers I interviewed and their dance partners who do not use wheelchairs called the Latin rhumba in wheelchair competitive dancing rampa, Väätäinen 2003, 101–102.
35 Ericsson 2016, 30, 33–34
36 On the representation of sexuality in the movement improvisation of an integrated dance company, see Väätäinen 2006.
37 Aula & Kuusisto 1998, 85.
38 Väätäinen 2009.
39 Röholm 2015, 1–2.
40 Kaaos Company n.d.
41 Eucrea 2021.
42 Karhunen 2020, 9–11.
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Hanna Väätäinen (PhD) teaches courses on the history of jazz dance, the history of ballet, the history of modern and contemporary dance and the history of Finnish art dance at Turku University of Applied Sciences. She is interested in improvisation in dance and its research, poetry, craft activism and comics. kirjosarjis.blogspot.com