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  • Writer's pictureJoe Powell-Main

The Perception of Disability in Dance

In this month's blog post, I am going to be talking about the perception of disability in dance. Being a dancer with a disability I feel it is important to share my own personal experiences both good and bad. Some may question why this is important and I believe that it is important to inspire the next generation and also provide and develop more opportunities for me and other dancers in the industry. I truly believe that there truly is a want and a need for dancers with disabilities, if we can continue to provide more opportunities and exposure for dancers with difference, this is the key to integrating dancers with different accessible needs into more training settings. This will in turn provide dancers who can and will pursue dance with a wide array of different needs.

Picture from my local paper the County Times from 2007.

For those not familiar with my story, I haven't always used a wheelchair and crutches. I began dance at the age of five. I had always moved to music even when I was a young baby, from what my parents tell me. I began my dance journey at the age of four. My teacher at my local school noticed that both me and my sister had potential for ballet and that was the route that we both decided to go down.

Me performing an arabesque on the beach during Summer 2011 just before starting my third year at RBS.

My journey with ballet took me to training on the junior associate program with the Royal Ballet School every Saturday at the Birmingham Centre, situated at the Birmingham Royal Ballet Studios. I was on this program for three years and also did the Elmhurst School for Dance equivalent for a year. Following both these avenues of training I successfully auditioned for the Royal Ballet School, Lower School, whilst in the middle of performing in Birmingham Royal Ballet's Sylvia around the country. Looking back on this period I never once encountered a dancer with a disability either at my local dance school or at the training I received through Elmhurst and The Royal Ballet School. During my years training with both of these establishments, I don't think I had even had the thought of the possibilities of pursuing a career in classical ballet with a disability. Now being on the other side of the coin so to speak, I ask myself what could have been done in both these environments to make both of these environments accessible to dancers with differing abilities and needs?

Royal Ballet School, Year 7 Picture 2009.

When I acquired my disability after training for nearly four years at the Royal Ballet School, I was unsure about what was still possible to me and thought that the avenue of dance and my pursuit of this journey was over. I think that my background in classical ballet and the continuation of striving towards perfection that this specific genre has historically been associated with, totally worked against me. I had created the idea that the body I now had as a disabled person was not the image of perfection needed for dance or ballet. This perception absolutely was absolutely the biggest barrier towards finding a path back towards dance, not to mention the trauma of sustaining an injury and all the problems associated with this. This trauma made me not even want to look at anything to do with dance in general.

My Mum made me see that dancing with difference was still possible. After seeing an advertisement for wheelchair dance association classes my Mum thought that this would be something that would interest me. So around three years after my departure from RBS I returned to dance. When I went to that first Latin and Ballroom class, I was amazed to see so many dancers using wheelchairs engaging in the classes. I think I originally felt a bit like the odd man out. All the other dancers were so comfortable with the way they used the chair and the movement to show the different dance styles. At the time I didn't know how they found the confidence to be able to truly explore all parts of the wheelchair and its possibilities, but I now know that part of that was because these dancers had accepted and learned that their disability was part of them and that it shouldn't be hidden. This has taken me a long time to accept and the more I have found I have accepted this, the more confident I have become and the more possibilities I have been able to explore. But even now I still do have the occasional day wondering what could have been.

It is my belief that that classical ballet is behind the contemporary dance world. At first when I knew that I wanted to try and see what was possible in terms of the classical technique in chair, I didn't fully understand why the ballet world wasn't as far forward as contemporary. I didn't dawn on me until I had a conversation with my previous choreography teacher from my RBS days why this might be. I think sharing ideas with another person helped me to understand this on a deeper level. Ballet is all about achieving a specific aesthetic that is thought to encompass the whole body. You often hear the critique in classes of dancers being told to think about the classical line flowing through the whole body, for the tips of the fingers to the ends of the toes. To put it more simply ballet has become a style that people immediate associate with shapes and movements of beauty and grace, with such regimented movements that have a tradition of being interpreted in such a specific way. Some people maybe don't think that it is possible for a dancer with different accessible needs to be capable of achieving such objectives. I heard a news story a few years ago of a young dancer not being able to achieve the same marks as their peers, simply because it was not possible for them to point the foot on their prosthetic leg. I felt that this news story added some validation of what I have been talking about, with the perception of a certain aesthetic stopping dancers being able to discover what is possible. However, through now using a wheelchair and crutches for nearly nine years and dancing in a wheelchair for around seven years, I have discovered that there are different ways of interpreting the classical ballet aesthetic and line through travel and movement of the chair. The chair has become an extension of my body and the classical line can be extended through the wheels and frame of the chair whilst spinning or travelling at speed and that is really exciting! I am also lucky that my disability allows me to have the option to use crutches. Using crutches provides a completely different set of possibilities and also challenges, that have been an interesting process to embrace. Being a dancer on both sides I have definitely seen for myself that using my wheelchair and crutches through movement may be perceived as less favourably by some people, but there are definitely some huge positives and possibilities that maybe a dancer who doesn't use a wheelchair or crutches wouldn't be able to achieve. That is not say anything that a dancer without different accessible needs, performs is less valid, but at the root of the perception of disability in dance, I believe we shouldn't compare dancers with a disability to dancers without a disability. It's like comparing the nutritional values of an apple and an orange, you can't! They both have different things that are valid and you need both of

Photography by Sian Trenberth.

them, something that I believe is a direct analogy to the dance industry, particularly if we want to pursue all the exciting integrated work that I know is entirely possible!

When I was training I think that the dance industry was completely different to the industry that it is now. I can see that important steps are being made to increase representation and diversity within the classical ballet world. There is absolutely still some way to go but I can definitely see that more interest is beginning to be generated around creating more opportunities for dancers with differing accessible needs. I think it is important to note that mistakes will be made along the way, but without these mistakes there is no learning or progression towards engaging more dancers in classical ballet. I have been having a few conversations with some really exciting people within the dance sector who I feel are really receptive to exploring opportunities for positive changes for dancers like me, and that really excites me! If these leaders in classical ballet are beginning to have these conversations now, think about how exciting the possibilities for dancers with differing needs could be in the world of classical ballet in a few years time. This is surely going to go a long way to breaking down any stereotypes of disability within the arts in general and is going to create a more positive future for the perception of disability within the dance sector. I really hope I can be a small part of that progression. I am really committed to making my voice heard not only for myself but for other dancers like me. I am so proud to be part of the dance industry and really look forward to seeing the positive developments that are yet to come!

That's all for this month. Make sure like the post and look out for next month's post on my ideas of creating a more integrated environment for a dance company.

See you soon

Joe x

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