As an invisibly disabled dancer, I am still on a long personal journey towards using my disability’s invisibility within performance to subvert social concepts of disability. Luckily, mistakes can be as informative as successes, and so I look to mine discussed in the third section to learn how invisible disability can be used within performance. Whether the audience is aware of your disabled identity is a key consideration, and at what point. To inform them may invite a diagnostic gaze, so one may choose to invite and then subvert that gaze, or perhaps not to invite it until after a body has been viewed, to allow an audience to notice their shift in perception. I think it is important that the audience are made aware at some point of a performers disabled identity if a performance aims to question disability. The term “body-ownership”, meaning an “awareness of one’s own body in space, and the pleasures and possibilities of this embodiment” (Kuppers, 2003, Pg 126) is a term I enjoy because of the ‘pleasure’ in this definition. Pleasure feels important to me, as it focuses not on the satisfaction of those observing a body, but the joy of the person who lives that body. When making performance that tries to communicate a message around disability, personal bodily joy can be sacrificed for the good of the audience, but I feel this betrays the original message of body equality.
Within performance, I would urge an awareness of whether a disability is being performed to match stereotypes or satisfy the social requirement of visual proof, or whether the performer is showing how ‘normal’ their body is by passing as able bodied. A step I wish to take within my practice is one of ‘owning’ my body and its disabled identity within performance, treading the precarious gap between passing and performing and remaining true to my own life experience of disability. It is a delicate balance between claiming your identity and body, whilst not letting your impairments or conditions define you or your work. It is about knowing and sticking to your physical and energetic boundaries, despite pressures to go beyond them. It is a lot more difficult than it looks on paper, and can be a challenge to all performers, not just those with a disabled identity.
Performance artist Bobby Baker says “There is a general assumption that being in the ‘dis’ group means we are weak and in need of help from the non-‘dis’ team. Whoever they are …”. (Baker, 2011) It seems to me that the term ‘Disabled’ really means ‘the not-normal body’, implying the existence of ‘the normal body’ that disabled bodies fall short of. For this reason, disability scholar Lennard J. Davis has chosen “to focus not so much on the construction of disability as on the construction of normality” (Davis, 2012, Pg 1) within his research. Even the term ‘DISability’ feeds a disabilist view. Baker explains that “the very ‘disability’, ‘disadvantage’, ‘disorder’ [my italics] that society deems so problematic can actually lead to sophisticated resilience and flexibility. Such people can acquire skills, insights, and humour – indeed wisdom about humanity – that others struggle with” (Baker, 2011) . Starting with the prefix ‘dis-‘, ‘disabled’ creates an instant, negative picture of what it is to be disabled.
Society perceives disability as a permanent, fixed identity. To accept that disabled identity is less than fixed entertains the idea that someone could transgress the able bodied / disabled divide. This would shake the security of disabled as Other. Some disability theorists describe people without disabilities as TABs, or the temporarily able-bodied. This is because many disabilities occur not at birth but during someone’s lifetime. As Paddy Masefield says,
“none of you will go to bed tonight and wake up tomorrow a different colour; very few of you will go to hospital tonight and wake up having changed your gender; but any of you could go to sleep tonight and wake up tomorrow a disabled person. Indeed, if only due to the ageing process, it is highly probable that all of you may at some point experience disability” (Masefield. 2006. Pg1.)
I disagree with Masefield here, as receiving surgery changes you sex, not your gender. However, I have chosen to retain the whole quote in my writing as it illustrates my point regarding disability.Disability can occur in later life due to accidents, late onsets of genetic conditions or illness, so for many people disability was not something that always was, or always will be.
For all of these reasons many find social conceptions of disability misleading and non-representative of disabled peoples’ experience. I would now like to explore how being invisibly disabled can allow dancers to deconstruct and destabilize social concepts of disability. The case studies I have chosen to use are both pieces of work that I have performed in. I have chosen to use these examples as they were performances I used for my research. As mentioned earlier, the two performances I will be analysing are Janice Parker’s Glory and my solo within Francesca Lacey’s Let’s Not Talk About The Weather.
The first point of comparison I wish to draw is how explicitly the two pieces explored the topic of disability. LNTW was explicitly about depression, and the copy and programme notes told the audience that all of the performers currently experienced depression. Each performer had a solo section, some of which spoke about depression explicitly and others, like mine, did not. I used movement and one repeated line of disjointed text to communicate my experience of depression. Glory was not explicitly about disability, despite having many disabled dancers taking part. Some of these dancers were visibly disabled, but the majority of disabled dancers had an invisible disability. An audience member entering the performance space of LNTW would have had disability, particularly depression, at the forefront of their mind, whereas an audience of Glory may never have considered disability in relation to the performance. One of Lacey’s main aims for the piece was to destabilize issues surrounding depression, whereas Parker’s politic within Glory was not centred on disabilitybut on inclusive participation. I would argue that all of the above choices are valid, and it is the way they combine with the content of the pieces that tell us if social concepts of disability were destabilized.
Although Glory was not about specifically about disability, visibly disabled dancers performed in the piece. Sadly this is still a relatively rare occurrence, and those who had assumed that disability prevented a person from being active or from performing for an audience will have been encouraged to question these views. When an audience viewed me as a performer, they will not have been able to see my disabled identity, and therefore may not have been lead to question their beliefs in quite the same way. However, as part of my practice as research, I had written on my website about my experience of working on Glory as an invisibly disabled dancer. Unexpectedly, the marketing team asked if they could use my writing as part of the shows advertising, to which I agreed. When I stepped on stage to perform in Glory many people in the audience knew my identity as invisibly disabled.
In LNTW everyone knew my disabled identity, in Glory some did through knowing me, some did through reading my website, and some had no idea. This leads me to the question; when aiming to destabilize social conceptions of disability, is it helpful for an audience to be informed about a dancers disabled identity? The audience of LNTW was very aware of my disabled identity, allowing me to create a movement sequence that reflected my experience of depression without explicitly disclosing my disability. However, there is a risk of inviting a diagnostic gaze when an audience are aware of an invisible disability. Kuppers explains “it is too easy to allow the spectator to see the performers as ‘mad’ and to see the traces of that ‘madness’ evidenced on their bodies’ (Kuppers, 2003, Pg 130). Audience members reading my body within LNTW may have lost their ability to see me as an individual, and just been looking for clues of my ‘madness’, objectifying my body into a specimen of ‘depressed person’, reducing “bodies to texts that need to be read and categorised” (Kuppers, 2003, Pg 130). It is possible that the same happened within Glory, although because Glory’s framing was not around issues of disability the diagnostic gaze will have been less intense. For those audience members who were not aware of my disabled identity, there will have been no diagnostic gaze and the possibility for me to pass as able-bodied. This could be positive, but questioning social concepts of disability is more difficult if no one is aware you are disabled or that disability is an issue being explored.
Parker’s approach towards Glory was that the individual movement of each body should be celebrated, and the mix of trained and untrained dancers within the group aided the aimed for diversity of movement styles. I entered the project without disclosing my disability to anyone, and it wasnot until just before the final performances that I began writing about my disability. The majority of the process saw me passing as able-bodied and I feel this approach towards my body continued into the performance. Within the synchronized choreographed sections I tried to push my body to the energy and accuracy of others in the room. Where there were individual, improvised sections I did not pace my energy, but pushed myself to energetic active movements that left me exhausted. I struggled to let my body move slowly, even when the whole group were given that option.
This denial of my body’s limitations may not have been noticed to an audience unaware of my disabled status, and it may not have been that obvious to those who were. Had I allowed myself to work in harmony with my disability, possibly in a visual way by using props or doing different movements, I could have created more of a conversation around invisible disability. However, many of the Glory dancers I spoke to didnot wish to be viewed as disabled dancers, just as dancers. This was because they didnot want their disability to become an excuse for poor work, or to illicit more praise for work than would otherwise have been received. This fear was the motivation for my ‘passing’ during Glory; I didn’t want to be seen as a ‘bad’ dancer because I required support or had to do sections differently.After GloryI attended aworkshop on Diverse and Inclusive Practice in Dancelead by Candoco Dance Company and Trinity Laban. Miriam, a Candoco dancer, explained that any dancer should be challenged to achieve their potential, and to over-praise someone because they are disabled is patronizing to the dancer and results in sloppy work. This feels like an important aspect of integrated dance practice. If invisibly disabled dancers such as those in Glory can be confident that their director or choreographer is going to push them to their potential the same as any other dancer, they may be less hesitant to identify as a disabled dancer.
One performer from Glory used a chair in the piece, and although no mention of her disability was made and no explanation of the chair given, I wonder if the visual presence of a body being supported brought questions to the audiences mind of what reality lay within this apparently able-body. Yet again, there is a possibility of igniting the diagnostic gaze as an audience tries to work out what is ‘wrong’ with this body, and why it needs to use a chair. An explanation of the chair may have prevented this speculation, but I feel to have included an explanation in the work or the programme would undermine both the ethos of individual movement valued by Parker and the performance given by the disabled dancer in question. To explain a disability or bodily difference can become to apologise for it. If the aim is to re-construct disability not as a negative, abject Other but a neutral fact of existence for many, to apologise sends the wrong message. Adam Benjamin questions why dance companies advertise their performances as physically integrated dance, as opposed to just dance. By telling the audience the work will contain disabled performers, are companies creating “a road sign warning the unsuspecting of the presence of wheelchairs”? (Benjamin, 1995)I agree with Benjamin when he says “The need for the label ‘integrated company’ will, I hope’ pass” (Benjamin 1995) Integrated dance practice can be seen as a movement for social equality, but it is also a movement for artistic excellence. To restrict the type of body allowed to dance professional restricts the choreographic potential and therefore the potential of contemporary dance as an art form. In an ideal world, there would be no need for the term integrated, as the dance world will haveaccepted the possibility of embracing all body types.
In Glory I attempted to pass, but my performance within LNTW could be described as a performance of an invisible disability. My solo consisted of me lying, dressed in grey, on a mattress with a duvet suspended around two feet above me. I started at one end of the mattress, and attempted to move to the other end whilst remaining under the duvet. This restricted my movement making it slow, cramped and exhausting, as I had to contort and hold my body in uncomfortable positions. I then spoke a disjointed piece of text
“Can you see?
You can see?
You can’t see. . . ”
Although this was an honest attempt to create a visual image of depression, it became in some ways an exaggerated stereotype of a ‘mad’ person in an unkempt bed, muttering to themselves. Some people with depression do find them in this position; Tracey Emin placed the bed she had been in for days, due to of a period of depression, in an art gallery, complete with urine stains, soiled underwear, condoms, empty bottles and cigarette butts to create the work My Bed. As a depressed person I have never lain in unkempt beds muttering to myself, but I have told doctors that I do in a desperate attempt to fight for medical support. This is the performance required to survive the mental health system. In the pursuit of a clear image for LNTW, the honesty of my true experience got lost. Performing disability can become obstructive when making performance work. In Kupper’s experience “performance work with people diagnosed with mental health problems has to deal with a history of bodily stagings, of recognised and (potentially rehearsed) performances” (Kuppers, 2003, Pg 124). The attempt to visualise an invisible disability was in itself playing to a social requirement for visual proof of bodily difference. It may have sent a stronger message to resist this pressure and offer an account of depression that offers no visual proof at all.
Passing and Performing
I would like to explore how people living with invisible disabilities perform certain behaviours in order to survive in day to day life. Judith Butler writes that “identity is performatively constituted by the very “expressions” that are said to be its results” (Butler, 1990, pg 25). Although Butler is referring to gender, I describe these behaviours specific to disability as performed because they are consciously chosen by an individual in response to the attitudes of other people, hoping to illicit a different response, or reading, from others.
I have identified two types of performed behaviour that all of the people I interviewed, and myself, have experienced. These are passing as able-bodied and performing as disabled. I would argue that although these behaviours are selected by individuals to survive in society, they are also political acts with consequences that go beyond the individual who performs them. This is not a judgement on any people who perform these behaviours, but an attempt to understand what the consequences are so that we can make more informed choices.
Unlike visibly disabled people, invisibly disabled people can choose to perform able-bodiedness as there is no visual indication that they have a disabled body. By passing as able-bodied, an individual may wish to avoid the prejudices aimed at disabled people. Additionally, they may not have accepted their identity as disabled because they do not identify with the stereotypes associated with a disabled identity, or because society has told them they are not disabled due the invisibility of their disability.
Within my research I have identified three main methods used by disabled people to pass as able bodied. The first is hiding any visible manifestations of a normally invisible disability. Performance artist Rita Marcalo created a performance called Involuntary Dances (date?), where she attempted to induce an epileptic fit for an audience to observe. This controversial work aimed to problematise the fact that “as an epileptic I constantly work very hard at ‘hiding’ my condition”(Marcalo, 2011). The second method is to push the body beyond its physical or energetic limits in order to match those of able-bodied people. The final method is possibly the most universal. Many people do not disclose their disability to anyone, whether that be face to face or when applying for a job or course of study.
Attempting to ‘pass’ as able-bodied can create tensions within individuals and their relationships with others. Samuels writes that “the option of passing” is a double-edged sword, offering “a certain level of privilege and a profound sense of misrecognition and internal dissonance” (Samuels, 2014, Pg 321). An invisibly disabled person can be read as able bodied and avoid prejudice, which is in some sense a privilege. However, if no-one knows your disability exists because you do not disclose it and hide any signs of its existence, they cannot support you. Combine this with pushing yourself beyond your energetic and physical limits, and you end up hurting and exhausting yourself, but unable to explain why or prevent it happening in the future. This was an experience shared by many my interviewees from Glory. Disability theorist Susan Wendell describes this as the self-betrayal associated with passing (Wendall, 2014).
If people with invisible disabilities choose to pass as able bodied, it reduces the acknowledgement of invisible disability within society. Despite this, passing does not have to be a negative act. It can be used to challenge the supposedly stable category of disabled. Samuels says, “Passing can become a subversive practice” where the individual is “read not as an assimilationist victim but as a defiant figure who, by crossing the borders of identities, reveals their instability” (Samuels, 2013, Pg321). I will discuss the potential of passing as well as the possibility for its translation into dance in the third section of this study.
Disability theorist Carrie Sandahl outlines the two choices for disabled people offered by society; “if one cannot pass as non-disabled, then one must at least represent one’s impairment as absolutely impeding (charity case) or relatively inconsequential (overcomer)” (Sandahl, 2003 pg 25-56). Invisibly disabled people may feel the need to perform their disability in order to validate it in the eyes of society. By validating their disability status, people are more able to access support and acceptance from society, as you can be neatly placed into one of the categories Sandahl describes.
Performances of disability can manifest in many ways. One way is to use a signifier, often in the form of mobility equipment. Some people I spoke to used crutches or wheelchairs they did not need because it validated their identity as disabled, allowing them to use disabled entrances, seats and parking spaces without judgement. Petra Kuppers highlights a second form of ‘performance’, stating that “many disabled people I know ‘perform’ their disability to the medical regime if they require certain accommodations, pain killers, disabled parking plates etc” (Kuppers, 2003, Pg 3). This is true for mental illness as well as physical disabilities. People are pushed to perform an exaggerated and often inaccurate stereotype of what it is to be disabled to access the little support available. However, in playing up to misconceptions of disability, the stereotype is reinforced.
The disability rights movement began in the 1960s and quickly influenced the performance world. Throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s companies practising integrated dance began to appear in the UK. I use the term ‘integrated dance’ to describe dance that values bodily difference and variety. Adam Benjamin, founder of Candoco and leading integrated dance practitioner,explains why he describes Candoco’s practice as integrated
When I use the word integration, it is an acknowledgement that the existing, ‘exclusive’ vision of dance is incomplete and in need of reform. If we are bringing together the ‘diverse parts of a complex whole’, then what we are accustomed to thinking of as ‘normal’ is by definition incomplete, and each of us will be somehow touched and changed by any new arrival … Integration invariably implies a certain amount of questioning, no small amount of friction and last, but not least, it commits us to change (A, Benjamin, 2002, p 14)
Candoco was founded in 1991,, and it continues to be a prominent international presence within the arts world. Other notable inclusive dance companies are GDance, Scottish Dance Theatre (and their Agent for Change Caroline Bowditch), Indepen-dance, Magpie Dance and The Foundation for Community Dance. I name these particular organisations because they work not just to provide dance in community settings for disabled people, but create pathways for disabled performers to develop their careers.
I would now like to discuss the specific set of barriers excluding invisibly disabled dancers from the world of dance. Invisible disability covers a wide range of disabilities, from physical to cognitive, sensory or mental illness. Invisible disabilities are more often conditions affecting the body than a constant impairment of a particular body part, making them less predictable in their effect on the body.
Dance is an art form where an audience experiences moving bodies. The audience will read those bodies and make assumptions, although the assumption may not reflect the reality of the bodies being read. This mismatch often occurs when an invisibly disabled dancer performs because, as Ellen Sammuels, disability and queer scholar, says, “the labels of nondisabled and heterosexuality are always presumed ‘unless otherwise stated’” (Sammuels, 2013, Pg 316). If no disability is visible on a body, it is assumed to be non-disabled.
Even if an invisibly disabled dancer discloses their identity as disabled, some audiences would refuse to accept that person’s disabled identity. Our world is constructed for the sighted, where emphasis is placed on what we see over what we hear, smell, taste or touch. Disability scholar Georgina Kleege explains, “the language we speak, the literature we read, the architecture we inhabit, were all designed by and for the sighted” (Kleege, 2013, Pg 447). There is a strong link between what we see and our idea of reality, so when someone claims to have a disability that cannot be seen, there is often distrust. Ellen Samuels claims there is “social scrutiny that refuses to accept statements of identity without proof” (Sammuels,2013, Pg 316) and I would argue that the proof is required to be visual.
People’s initial idea of the term ‘disabled’ can support their disbelief of invisible disability. As Axis dancer Emily Eifler says, “Wheelchairs have become the emblem of all disabled people. They are on everything from parking spaces to disability-pride t-shirts”. The wheelchair symbol on accessible facilities encourages people to assume that ‘disabled’ is synonymous with ‘wheelchair user’. This association is problematic when anyone who does not use a wheelchair tries to identify as disabled.
Disability theorist Ann Millett-Gallant claims our society is one “in which we are all pervasively gazing/staring at each other and forming our notions of ourselves both in identifications with and against other bodies” (Millett-Glallant, 2000, pg14) Invisible disability can become threatening to an ableist gaze, such as those turned towards disabled performers in the freak shows, as the once secure boundaries of us, the able-bodied, and them, the disabled, is blurred.
Because audiences often do not recognise invisible disability, joining a disability dance group or accessing dance training through disability organizations can be difficult for invisibly disabled dancers. If the disability in question is not visible to an audience, it does not validate that company’s title of ‘physically integrated’ or ‘inclusive’. This has lead to some dance institutions being open to physically disabled students studying on their dances courses but not invisibly disabled ones. Instead of achieving equality, this disability discrimination makes invisible disability even less visible in the world of contemporary dance.
Dance artist Jess Allen explains how many invisibly disabled dancers have “day-to-day unpredictability in their movement possibility”, making them “much harder to ‘place’ and work with than those with a very clear and consistent disability, or those who are entirely non-disabled”. (ref?) In her experience, and that of the people I interviewed, “it’s possible to be marginalised because of a condition rather than a more ‘stable’ disability.” A choreographer working with a dancer whose has a fluctuating disability may feel they are working with multiple bodies, as choreography that is possible one day is not the next. This makes choreography more difficult as you can never expect a body to do any particular thing, but it could be argued that this produces, by necessity, more exciting choreographic methods.
The Foundation for Community Dance is one company who has tried to explore the challenges of invisible disabilities within the dance industry. In their recent video “Physically Being Me” the producer Louise Wildish explained “it is important to us that a dancer with an ‘invisible disability’ took part”. Wildish hoped that including invisibly disabled dancer Louise Dickson would explore the problems faced by invisibly disabled dancers “when taking part in what we know to be a standardised structure of rehearsals and performance.” She continues “Can everyone with a disability really follow the same rehearsal process that practitioners, organisations and companies have followed for decades?” (Wildish, 2014, P 26) My answer would be definitely not, and I would add that to expect all performers, disabled or not, to work within the same rehearsal and performance structures is short sighted. All artists work in unique ways that are reflected in the wide range of work being produced.
In interviews with Glory performers I asked how each person had experienced the rehearsal process. Performers with invisible disabilities were much more likely to experience limited energy. Attitudes akin to “the show must go on!” and “give this 110%!” can be problematic for those who, due to invisible disability, have to carefully measure and pace their energy output. During the Glory run, one performer needed to rest for several of the shows before returning to perform. Another took the week off of work so that they could rest during the days, allowing themselves enough energy to perform in the evenings. In the case of Glory these needs could all be met without problem because of the inclusive and accepting nature of the project and the choreographer, Janice Parker. I doubt whether these needs would have been met in other performance projects.
I feel that investigating the invisibly disabled body in contemporary dance is the next step to be taken towards dance equality. Not only has it barely been discussed within dance or disability discourse, but by understanding the barriers and prejudices surrounding invisible disability we can gain a greater understanding of the barriers facing disabled dancers in general, and possibly begin to tap into what could be an opportunity for dance that uproots the social category of disability through the moving, invisibly disabled body.