When I think about why I embarked upon PhD research (and at the time the question of WHY? came up often) I realise that in a way I had a point to prove, and I felt sure of the value of my claim because I was living it: There really aren’t enough disabled leaders in dance. This realisation helped me to clarify the direction of my research, which became the study Dance, Disability, Leadership and the shifting role of the disabled dance artist (completed in 2016 at C-DaRE, Coventry University).
During my PhD research, I started experimenting with writing from an auto-ethnographic perspective. I did this in some way to resist the existing canon of established non-disabled academics writing about dance and disability, adding my own voice and lived experience to offer a new perspective to this field of research. Further to this, locating myself as indigenous in a community of disabled artists allowed me to explore my own position and to go some way towards exploring the experiences of peers who might not yet have a platform to express their perspectives. I am consciously borrowing the term indigenous from an existing canon of anthropological research here. In the context of my research this term has a two-fold meaning, firstly, to highlight my feeling of belonging to a perceived community of artists and secondly to openly resist traditional notions of colonial models of anthropological study within which ‘non-native’ researchers look in from an outsider position. My research specifically seeks to highlight the authentic voices and lived experiences of disabled artists. This is done through presenting findings from long term case study research that took place over a period of two years in various settings, from home to studio.
I greedily sought out anything produced by disabled academics in the arts. Petra Kuppers, Simi Linton, Colette Conroy, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson1 became constant voices in my research, their words scribbled on post-it notes and swimming around my head as I was interrogating my own questions. Disability Activist Simi Linton describes disabled people as “sharing the vantage point of the atypical” (Linton 2007). The power in the sentiment of a possible collective of disabled dance artists resonated with me strongly and I wanted to further embed myself into a community that would feed my research and where I could contribute something. As anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff states in the context of her anthropologic study of Jewish communities in California, “They are my people and I am theirs” (1978, 28).
1 Petra Kuppers, Simi Linton, Collette Conroy, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson
Unexpectedly it was my journey in research that ignited my desire to cement my identity as a disabled dance artist. Prior to this research I hadn’t really considered the weight of my experience, my position or my voice. This realisation had a profound impact on my practice as an artist-researcher and choreographer and the direction of my research. Identifying in this way meant that I began to trust and privilege my own voice and in turn, the voices of other disabled artists.
On my PhD journey, I often felt a sense of responsibility. I would joke that at disability focused conferences, I was the only dance person, conversely at dance focused conferences I was the only disabled person. Where was the shared space?
The world of scholarly research can be isolating. In the outside world of dissemination I would often feel like a novelty, invited in to ‘tick a box’. In the safety of my research spaces, at home, with allies and peers, my connection to the driving force of my research was getting stronger and stronger. There really are not enough disabled leaders in dance!
In her text Feminism, Foucault and Embodied Subjectivity, Professor of Philosophy Margaret A. McLaren (2002) describes a process of consciousness-raising or awareness-raising, primarily employed to explore feminist theory. Consciousness-raising offers an interesting parallel for thinking about the development of dance and disability research. McLaren suggests that it is a process “that involves not only the self-transformation, but also social and political transformation” (McLaren 2002, 155). Borrowing this notion has been useful in my research when engaging in practice and conversation with disabled artists and allies2. My own ideas had shifted from being somewhat restricted by notions of ‘normative’ or mainstream dance where disability is peripheral towards a developing sense that as a disabled artist researcher, I could affect change in the sector on terms that made sense to my body and my experience. With this shift in my perception my subsequent practice in the dance sector3 seemed to have the ‘ripple effect’ of broader thought change in the sector. Examples of this change include dissemination of my case study and auto-ethnographic practice-research in ‘mainstream’ academic environments conferences, symposia (Dance Studies Association, DSA annual conference). This indicates a shift from my previous experience (where conversations focused on dance and disability were somewhat limited) to specific targeted events, such as symposia that seemed to include and invite those already practicing in so-called ‘inclusive’ environments rather than being imbedded in events with multiple foci. What is important here is that the shifts in perception come from a place of first-hand experience and are therefore of most benefit to the people affected by the change (or lack of change), in this case disabled artists.
2 I use the term allies here to acknowledge that practice and discourse in dance and disability includes a multitude of voices, some of whom do not identify as disabled, but whose contribution is important and significant. For more information see www.metalculture.com/change-maker-blog-allies
3 For the purpose of this writing I am considering the emergence of Candoco (UK) in 1991 to signify one such beginning, however there was also a canon of practice in dance and disability prior to this, for example, AMICI (London). (amicidance.org/about/amici-dance-theatre-company)
Through my research I found a growing need to express the view that to limit disabled artists to practicing, talking and teaching about disability is an outdated model that fails to account for the knowledge accrued by these artists over almost three decades since the rise of the so-called ‘inclusive’ dance sector in the UK. It is important to allow this knowledge, pertaining to multiple areas of the dance sector, (somatics, pedagogy, choreography) to bring about change and impact on the broader dance sector. Doing so has the potential to address the fragile and often temporary position of disabled artists.
What do disabled artists know, other than about how to ‘do’ disability?
Embodiment is a well-worn term in contemporary dance. This is evident in both theory and practice, for example, we might hear in dance criticism or research canons how a dancer is ‘really embodying her dance’, or that a dancer is embodying her body to be fully ‘present’.
I wonder how do we not embody our bodies or our movement? Has embodiment in dance shifted in some contexts to mean we are being ‘good’ at dancing or ‘good’ at understanding our bodies? It is a somewhat slippery term that resists definition, it might be used to express a ‘feeling’ gained from seeing or ‘doing’ dance. The problem with much assumed knowledge surrounding certain codified terms in dance is that they rarely apply to the non-conforming dancer’s body. Codified body specific language, (for example, to do a plie or to ‘roll down the spine’) is an obstacle to access, participation and progression in dance. However, I am also suggesting that when it comes to embodiment, the disabled dancer might actually be advantaged, she knows what it is to feel her body to negotiate and navigate the world. Embodiment is not ‘turned on’ during practice. It starts from the second she enters the ableist environment we live in. This could be thought about in a number of ways. For the dancer with one hand, the objectifying stare at the train station brings her physicality into sharp focus, for the dancer with chronic pain or fatigue the daily negotiation between pain, energy and effort is never off the agenda.
I would like to make two claims relating to the experience of physical disability and disabled dance artists’ unique perspective on embodiment. Firstly, disabled people live in a body that does not conform, one which requires an ongoing negotiation between body and world. We do not dip in and out of embodiment, the disabled body is an embodied body by default. Secondly, and in contrast, I argue that narratives of trauma and care within a dominant medicalised understanding of disability4 force a perceived separation between the dancer’s ‘private’ body and her public body, therefore leading to a greater feeling of dis-embodiment.
4 There is a wealth of writing emerging from disability studies that explores different models of disability, for example: englishagenda.britishcouncil.org/sites/default/ files/attachments/models_of_disability.pdf
This proposition is flawed of course and the idea of public and private bodies can largely be applied to all bodies, particularly all dancing bodies. I make this case still and I do so on behalf of myself and my disabled artist peers. It is a way of taking us out of the margins and locating us into ‘mainstream’ discourses in dance. I do this because disabled artists know stuff, stuff that extends beyond the so-called ‘dance and disability sector’. We are more than a conference, more than an optional module on a dance qualification. It must be the case that after nearly three decades since the emergence of companies such as Candoco that we have earned a place where we can claim some ownership of the spaces in ‘mainstream’ dance practice.
So, are we ‘better’ at embodiment? Of course not. So subjective is the notion of embodiment that it isn’t possible to make such a claim. What does seem helpful, however, is the idea that disabled artists can access the term equally. There is no adaptation, or second or third version. The notion of a ‘hierarchy’ of adaptations is based on my own experience and practice particularly in pedagogic environments where there is often the ‘original’ phrase of movement or choreographic task and dancers with non-conforming bodies are invited to find an adaptation, meaning that their version is always an interpretation of the ‘proper’ way.
Understanding that the disabled dancer is well versed in multiple aspects of contemporary dance is a way of taking her out of the margins and locating her within mainstream discourses in dance. In research terms there is great value in exploring this ‘other’ knowledge. If the disabled dance artist is limited to being understood as ‘expert’ in disability dance, what does this mean for her longevity in the sector? Contributing to discourses and practices in dance practice and research that include and extend beyond the subject of disability will position the disabled dancer as a future stake holder in contemporary dance. It also has the potential to create a place in shared cultural heritage frameworks, which are at present strongly informed by normative ideals of dance and dancing bodies.
My decision to include an auto-ethnographic chapter within my thesis, examining my own journey in contemporary dance and reflecting on my practice was an explicit attempt to circumnavigate the existing ‘gate-keepers’ in dance and historical practice and research. The term gate-keepers is of course problematic and as a researcher undertaking case studies and interpreting findings I become a gate-keeper myself, in the same way that any platform such as this resource makes us into gate-keepers of sorts. In acknowledging that gate-keeping, which is somewhat inevitable, it seems to me to be important to recognise this position and furthermore to re-visit my earlier comment on how I chose to identify as a disabled artist. In the context of being a ‘disabled’ gate-keeper I am explicitly aiming to make myself visible to others. As a practice it strikes me that this is a powerful stance for the researcher, regardless of the specific subject area, to speak with transparency about the potential our lived experiences have to radically shift how we approach research.
- Petra Kuppers, Simi Linton, Collette Conroy, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson
- I use the term allies here to acknowledge that practice and discourse in dance and disability includes a multitude of voices, some of whom do not identify as disabled, but whose contribution is important and significant. For more information see www.metalculture.com/change-maker-blog-allies
- For the purpose of this writing I am considering the emergence of Candoco (UK) in 1991 to signify one such beginning, however there was also a canon of practice in dance and disability prior to this, for example, AMICI (London). (amicidance.org/about/amici-dance-theatre-company)
- There is a wealth of writing emerging from disability studies that explores different models of disability, for example: englishagenda.britishcouncil.org/sites/default/files/attachments/models_of_disability.pdf
Reference List and Additional Resources
Linton, Simi. 2007. My Body Politic, A Memoir. University of Michigan Press.
Marsh, Kate. 2016. Taking Charge – Dance, Disability and Leadership: An Exploration of the Shifting Role of the Disabled Dance Artist. PhD thesis, Coventry University.
McLaren, Margaret. A. 2002. Feminism, Foucault and Embodied Subjectivity. State University of New York Press, Albany.
Myerhoff, Barbara. 1978. Number Our Days. Dutton, New York.
Dr Kate Marsh is a post-doctoral research assistant at C-DaRE and an associate producer at Metal an interdisciplinary art organisation, she is also an associate artist with Candoco Dance Company. Kate’s practice-research explores the position of the disabled dance artist and seeks to examine spaces in-between binary understandings of ‘normative’ and ‘other’. She also co-choreographs and performs with her long-term collaborator Welly O’Brien.