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.