Friday, October 5, 2018

Challenging Perceptions and Propelling Artistry: Dance and Disability Soars in Florida


I enjoyed the opportunity to join Miami’s Forward Motion Festival last week, produced by Karen Peterson and Dancers from September 26-29, 2018.

With leading support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, Forward Motion featured highly accomplished professional dance companies and showcased groundbreaking physically integrated dance. Featured dance companies were AXIS Dance Company (San Francisco, CA/USA), Candoco Dance Company (London), Karen Peterson and Dancers (Miami, FL), and REVolutions Dance (Tampa, FL/USA).
REVolutions Dance is the company/program in which I teach and choreograph, led by Dwayne Scheuneman.

In addition to interactive, creatively rigorous movement workshops and brilliant performances, the festival was full of lively and provocative discussions about the integrated/inclusive dance field. 

Thursday’s conference opened with a plenary session moderated by Sara Nash, Director of Dance at the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Nash posed this question for the panel: Speak about one gap that you see in current training that needs to change in order for the form to grow and move forward. What are specific actions steps that you and your company are taking, or that you see others taking?

Dwayne Scheuneman (REVolutions Dance)
described issues relating to specialization of the assistive technology dancers with disabilities use, noting the ways in which professional wheelchair dancers (himself included) have technologically altered their wheelchairs to achieve specific goals in dance and the need for that knowledge to be disseminated as well as for adequate resource support and continued development of innovation. Dwayne described his personal experience of navigating assistive technology resource support (through the VA) to support his work in dance as a dancer who relies upon the use of an assistive technology. Of particular note is that often wheelchair dancers have multiple chairs – the one they use more specifically for dance, and the one they may use more in their daily living situations. But, often, funding streams only support the user having one device, not recognizing the different life or work activities which may necessitate a different type of device. 

This is an area I have advocated for since 2005 and an area of research investigation which I believe is underdeveloped in dance. In comparison to assistive technology evolutions in adaptive sports, dance is lacking. Within my work at the University of South Florida, I have worked with engineers in and outside of USF to research and design new possibilities for wheelchair technologies relevant for dance. Multiple patented prototypes have resulted. And, within my work in REVolutions Dance, dance students who use assistive technology have tried different types of chairs to experiment with different movement possibilities. This has included the use of a stand-up wheelchair, a power assist manual wheelchair, the Rolling Dance Chair prototype, and a small power chair. Discussions with parents have also productively led to strategic choices in the assistive technology to support dance goals/needs. In saying this, I must clarify, that I am not suggesting that a person cannot participate or explore dance if they do not have a particular device. I am a proponent of inviting people into dance training opportunities with whatever they have. At some point, though, a discussion of the technology is useful to support the individual’s interests and goals. Similarly, for a non-disabled dance student wanting to learn tap dance, or flamenco, or ballet pointe work, the technology of the specific shoewear plays a role in facilitating the experience and the artistic possibilities. The assistive technology and how it is designed can mediate access to activities for individuals with disabilities.

Karen Peterson (KPD) spoke about the need for continued and broader visibility. She described that more people need to be exposed to dance and disability and emphasized that there are still attitudinal barriers to address. Her company regularly performs and conducts residencies in the schools and in community venues, trying to reach multiple sectors. The Forward Motion festival is one significant, largescale effort to create greater visibility and awareness.

Marc Brew (AXIS) emphasized the need for choreographic training for disabled dancers and described some of the initiatives AXIS is doing to help fill this gap, including the Artistic Advancement Platform and Choreolab. He spoke about the notable absence of disabled choreographers, set designers, and other art-makers in the field. Despite the various gaps in the field, Marc urged a focus upon the artistry, posing the question, “How can we move the art form forward?” and “How can we be advocates?”

Charlotte Darbyshire (Candoco) described the need to create improved access to training for young students with disabilities, pointing to a gap in preparation for students to enter university dance programs, etc. She urged the field to “disturb and challenge” existing approaches to dance training and consider how to create our own contexts for learning. She pointed to the dance hierarchieswhich persist – specifically emerging out of a Classical Ballet aesthetic and practice and asserted challenging these traditional hierarchies, assumptions, and perceptions. She also noted the gap in disabled leaders across the field and emphasized that the art form is enriched and productively disturbed by bringing disabled dancers into it.

Continued discussion led to a general acknowledgement by the panel of limited training opportunities and the desire to increase opportunities as well as create forums in which ideas are exchanged amongst existing integrated dance companies and dance professionals. Charlotte (Candoco) stressed, “continual learning from each other is vital.” She reflected upon the advantages Candoco has had in terms of being in professional, high-quality “able-bodied” dance festivals which has facilitated Candoco’s development.

Marc Brew (AXIS) also reiterated the issue of funding support to enable touring and the need for beneficial partnerships. Karen Peterson addressed a related barrier to funding, involving transportation needs for those with disabilities. She suggested that even a small amount of money to cover transportation could help that person come to a dance class.
Nash then asked panelists to share the types of training opportunities their respective companies or allied partners offer for the audience.

The panel finalized their discussion with this prompt from Nash, which was also opened to the audience for contribution:
“In 10 years what do you hope for?”
Several aspirations mentioned were:
  • Disabled dancers to have access to academic dance programs and can apply to any College/University.
  • 10x larger audience.
  • Cultural shift regarding inclusion, where the value of diversity is simply understood – it does not have to be explained or justified.
  • Companies do not need to distinguish themselves as having disabled and nondisabled dancers. They are just simply a professional dance company.
  •  More significant funding to grow the field.

Additional panel discussions focused on the issues of representation in the arts and media for artists with disabilities and questions of equity and inclusion.
The second panel was moderated by Allison Shifani (University of Miami) and the questions posed included:
·       What does representation mean to you?
·       What do you think representation means in terms of things like dance?
·       How do you envision your role as someone representing a particular form of difference?
·       Do you think of your role as providing education to the audience?
·       What should the media be representing you as?
·       How has the media come into your own work, broadly speaking?

Some of the key ideas which resonated with me as a listener included a statement by Jose Manuel Dominguez  (director/writer/performer/Antiheroes Project) emphasizing that having the same type of disability as another person does not correspond to sameness: “just because we all are blind, does not mean we are the same.” There can be a tendency for one person to be expected to represent the voices of an entire group of people, but the importance of recognizing individual identities within a group who may share one commonality needs to be part of the understanding.

Laura Patay (Candoco dancer) described the agency she feels on stage in “having the power of being seen” – the way she chooses to be seen.

Lani Dickinson (AXIS dancer) described that representation through dance is both controllable and uncontrollable, and also, that media platforms give her the chance to re-invent herself.

When discussing how the media should be representing these artists and the companies in which they work, the main theme echoed by multiple panelists was the issue of the media focusing too narrowly on the disability aspect, and not focusing on the artistry. They emphasized the need for a dialogue to occur between the artist and the journalist for correct representation.

The final panel discussion was entitled, “Moving In: Intersecting Disability, Sexuality, Race, Religion, Ethnicity, and Gender” and the moderator for this panel was Nadege Green, journalist/WLRN. Panelists included James Bowen (AXIS Dance Company), Joel Brown (Candoco Dance Company), JanipiStar AKA Jean P Crespo Rodriguez (AXIS Dance Company), Annie Segarra (artist, activist, YouTuber), and Pioneer Winter (choreographer/dancer).

Green posed compelling questions for the panel and audience to consider including:
·       What aren’t we talking about with regard to inclusion in the arts?
·       Who gets in? What does the pipeline look like and how are we creating the pipeline?
·       Mental health and invisible disabilities – what about that? Is there a better way for us to know about invisible disabilities?

            Issues which arose in this discussion were the concern of being perceived as “not disabled enough” and “too disabled” in a variety of contexts. Panelists discussed the problematic assumptions that they often experience in social situations due to how they look or appear.
            The term “inclusion” was unpacked and examined for its broad-reaching, nebulous interpretation and effect that often does a disservice to those it is intended to support. The use of the term “access” was emphasized over the use of the term “inclusion.”

Movement workshops were offered by AXIS Dance Company and Candoco Dance Company during Friday and Saturday afternoons with performances in the evening. I enjoyed the opportunity to both participate in and observe the workshops which were all enriching in their content, multi-layered format, and collaborative, interactive emphasis.

The Forward Motion Festival will also occur next year in late September 2019.

I am glad to be a part of the current momentum in the dance and disability field. I am also thankful for pioneers in the field, such as Karen Peterson, Judith Smith, Mary Verdi-Fletcher, and Kitty Lunn who carved out space for dancers with disabilities despite all of the social, attitudinal, and physical barriers at the time. Their persistence and dedication is admirable and it has allowed the field to take root and develop. Disability is pushing dance forward into new artistic terrain and into new pedagogical terrain, and that is very exciting to be partaking in and seeing.
I am also glad that, in Florida, we are creating the types of visibility the field needs through a variety of festivals, conferences, and residencies. We are mobilizing the ideas and goals, not just talking about them. This requires dedicated partnerships, funding support, and sustainable models. The Forward Motion festival and conference in Miami, FL occurred directly after a residency in Tampa, Florida at Hillsborough Community College of AXIS Dance Company. AXIS also traveled to Jacksonville, FL (Brooks Adaptive Sport and Recreation) and Orlando, FL (Smith Center for Performing Arts) and in late October, early November 2018, “A New Definition of Dance” will occur at the University of South Florida – now in its 3rd year. 

“A New Definition of Dance” is an initiative I began in close collaboration with Arts4All Florida (formerly VSA Florida) and other University and community collaborators. The goal was to bring professional dancers with disabilities from in and outside of the U.S. to USF and the surrounding community to perform, teach workshops, and engage in discussions about integrated/inclusive dance practices. The goal was also to place these artists in intersection with each other and build the integrated dance community. Each year has brought a diverse and enriching experience to all involved, and the artists often travel to several different cities in Florida.
This year, we are bringing Luca “LazyLegz” Patuelli and his company, “ILL-Abilities” from Montreal, Canada. They are a company of breakdancers with varied cultural backgrounds.
The performance is Friday, Nov. 2nd at 7:30 pm in Theatre II, University of South Florida campus (Tampa, FL).
For public tickets:

Movement workshop attendees at Forward Motion Dance Festival
and Conference with Marc Brew (AXIS) and Dwayne Scheuneman (REVolutions Dance and AXIS) (center)

Heather Celeste (Smith Center for Performing Arts), Merry Lynn Morris, Joel Brown (Candoco dancer)
Clarence Brooks (Fl. Atlantic University), Pamela Handman (University of Utah), Merry Lynn Morris (University of South Florida & REVolutions Dance)
Ann Popik (Brooks Adaptive Sport and Recreation), Heather Celeste (Smith Center for Performing Arts)
Merry Lynn Morris (USF & REVolutions Dance) L to R
Lauren Patay (Candoco), Heather Celeste (Smith Center for Performing Arts)
Ann Popik (Brooks Adaptive Sport and Recreation), Megan Armishaw (Candoco)
(L to R)