As an art form comprised of physical movement, dance has traditionally privileged the extraordinary body. Dancers are often treated with a certain paradoxical awe that is an odd mixture of respect for the physical discipline of daily technique classes, fascination with what is often supposed to be a “natural” gracefulness (but is, of course, a result of intensive physical training), and plain old objectification. Although the “look” of dancers has indeed changed with the political, economic, intellectual, and aesthetic revolutions of the past 150 years of Western culture, the idealized image of the beautiful, graceful, or sexy dancer still informs most people’s vision of professional dancing.
Given that disability signifies the cultural antithesis of the fit, healthy body, what happens when visibly disabled people move into the role of dancer, the very same role that has been historically reserved for the glorification of an ideal body? Does the integration of disabled bodies into contemporary dance result in a disruption of ableist preconceptions about professional dance? Or does the disabled body “transcend” its disability to become a dancer? What is at stake in these questions is not merely the physical definition of a dancer’s body, but the larger (metaphysical) structure of dance as a form of representation. When dancers take their place in front of the spotlight, they are often displayed in ways that accentuate the double role of technical prowess and sexual desirability (the latter being implicit in the very fact of a body’s visual availability). In contrast, the disabled body is supposed to be covered up or hidden from view, to be compensated for or overcome (either literally or metaphorically) in an attempt to live as “normal” a life as possible. When a disabled dancer enters the stage, he or she stakes claim to a radical space, an unruly location where disparate assumptions collide.
The intersection of dance and disability is an extraordinarily rich site at which to explore the overlapping constructions of the body’s physical ability, subjectivity, and cultural visibility. Excavating the social meanings of these constructions is comparable to an archeological dig into the deep psychic fears that dis/ability creates. As Ynestra King puts it in her insightful essay “The Other Body”: “Visibly disabled people (like women) in this culture are the scapegoats for resentments of the limitations of organic life.” In order to examine ableist preconceptions in the professional dance world, one must confront both the ideological and symbolic meanings that the disabled body holds in our culture, as well as the practical conditions of disability. Once again, we are in the position of having to negotiate between the theatrical representations of dancing bodies and the actuality of their physical experiences. Watching disabled bodies dancing forces us to see with a double vision, and helps us to recognize that while a dance performance is grounded in the physical capacities of a dancer, it is not limited by them.
Watch: View the tango section from the film Outside/In by Victoria Marks and Margaret Williams with Candoco, a mixed ability dance company from England.
Write: Take ten minutes to free-write about watching the dance.
Discuss: As a full group, consider issues of ability and disability:
- What is ability, in its broadest definition?
- Some kinds of abilities are visible and others are invisible. Discuss examples of each kind.
- What is disability, in its broadest definition?
- Some kinds of disabilities are visible and others are invisible. Discuss examples of each kind.
- Where do limitations on able and disabled bodies come from? Are they self-imposed? Are they socially imposed?
- Are there persons you know or have heard about who have overcome specific limitations?
Note to teachers: Guide the discussion so that some examples are “normal” limitations that most people experience (such as the human inability to fly, for example). Other examples should be limitations that are unusual or specific to a small number of people. Some examples might be visible limitations, other examples might be invisible limitations.