One of the most exciting projects of this year for me has been developing an inclusive dance program in partnership with the St. Stephen's Episcopal Church. The vision for the class came from one of the staff members at the church, Christy, who had participated in an inclusive dance class several years ago and had a dream of recreating that experience for her community. I worked with her and her former dance partner, Brooke, to develop and promote the class. (Brooke is a writer and performing artist with cerebral palsy--be sure to check out her website & storytelling business on Brooke's Butterfly Touch.)

One thing we talked often about was how to effectively communicate the vision for this class in words. Christy had introduced the idea for the class with the phrase "inclusive dance." I have continued to use this phrase to indicate that the class is be open and adaptable to people with a wide and varying range of ages, mental and physical disabilities, and levels of dance training. However, the phrase "inclusive dance" is a really interesting one that raises some questions for me, which I've been working to unpack.

First, my own definition of dance is, I would argue, inherently and already "inclusive," so to place the word "inclusive" in from of the word "dance" seems almost redundant. For me, dance is any form of intentional movement OR stillness that falls outside of the utililtarian or "necessary" movement required by every-day life. Someone turning their palms upwards before they pray or meditate, for example, would be a dance to me. So might the ritual of tucking a child into bed, if performed with a sense of care and attention. However, few people share this perspective on dance, and I don't expect, or need them to. A more common definition of dance is one that requires steps, styles, techniques, and training making dance a skill that is only held, accessed, or possessed by those with training or "natural" talent. 

The field of dance ethnography teaches that the ways we understand dance--what it is, what is it's role, and who can do it--is deeply connected to our cultural framework. The ways dance is constructed and understood in America will be different in a university dance program than in a nightclub than in a ballet studio than on a street corner in the Bronx. In all of these spaces and settings, the way dance is conceived of, and who has access to participate, varies. Often, these social constructions of dance are extremely exclusive. Such as:

  • When dance is depicted as an "elite" or "skilled" art form (i.e. So You Think You Can Dance)
  • When dance "training" through the form of studio classes is only available to those who can afford to pay.
  • When the only bodies that we see performing or doing dance fit certain physical categories to the exclusion of others: i.e. fit/"able-bodied"; young or youthful-looking; all one particular racial category or ethnic group, leading to perceptions that "you have to be skinny to dance ballet" or "only black people can do hip-hop"

Here's what exclusion can look like.

Parents who enroll their children at a traditional studio offering classes for children and youth,  may gain the impression that once they are passed a certain age it is no longer appropriate for them to study dance. Those who want to dance as older adults will likely have a much more difficult time finding classes geared to their age group, where they don't feel out of place in a sea of younger bodies. People with visible disabilities or physical limitations probably face the most barriers upon entering the dance world: attitudinal, logistical, lack of rigorous or professional training, and lack of information (See: Barriers to Dance Training for Young People with Disabilities).

So what does it mean to be actively inclusive in the way we teach dance, and construct dance spaces? How do we push against the ways in which dance spaces have become exclusive of those whose real or perceived age, socioeconomic status, physical or mental abilities, gender, race, ethnicity, or other social identifiers have placed them outside of the borders of access, privilege, and a sense of belonging in dance spaces? 

I think what is required is a radical expansion of the boundaries of the dance world, or our perceptions of these boundaries. In a perfect world, the label "inclusive" would not even be needed because all dance teachers would already operate under that framework--one that assumes diversity of participants. 

So what does this shift look like? What does it feel like in a dance class? 

 Image from an  Axis Dance Company  workshop. Axis is one of the main inspirations behind this project.

Image from an Axis Dance Company workshop. Axis is one of the main inspirations behind this project.

I think Brooke poses this question in her tagline for the class: "What happens when people of all stages, ages, and ability levels move together?" And I think she nails it with the phrase "Dance Mixability." To me, this captures the spontaneous, unpredictable, generative energy that I have been feeling in every week's class. It's the energy of discovery--people learning they can move and feel different in their bodies. It's the energy of connection--realizing how we can communicate in new ways, support each other. Finally, it's the energy of the unknown--depending on who shows up to the space, the nature of the class can shift and change greatly. So far, every week's class has felt like a new experiment to me. As the facilitator, I find myself constantly surprised, often challenged, and frequently in laughter about what unfolds.

At the same time, I am challenged by this passage in the article cited earlier:

While there are a large number of first access participatory opportunities, most of these are recreational or therapeutic in nature, emphasizing creativity and fun. Although such experiences can be invaluable, many young disabled dancers may wish to improve their technical competence but find few opportunities in which to do so; dancers with disabilities have reported that technical skill-building did not form a substantial part of their training (Verrent, 2003)

I would definitely categorize our Dance Mixability class as the first kind of class described. It is beautiful, and important, but in the movement for fully inclusive dance, it is just a first step--not the final goal. A fuller vision of radically inclusive dance is the Axis Dance Company model--a physically integrated company where dancers with disabilities have the access to training and opportunities to dance and choreograph as professional performers and artists. Axis is much more than a professional dance company--it is a center for resources and knowledge sharing, teacher training programs, professional development opportunities for dancers with disabilities, community engagement, artistic growth. The impact of this work is huge. Our class is actually part of the Axis ripple effect--Brooke trained with Axis at one of their summer workshops, and as a new teacher I have been mining the wealth of resources on the Axis website for ideas and information. My long-term goal is to get to an Axis teacher training program, or maybe even bring them to AZ.

It's exciting to take part in developing the infrastructure for a more inclusive dance community here in Arizona. With that goal in mind, I would love to hear your thoughts.

How do you experience dance spaces as "inclusive" or "exclusive?"

What makes a space "inclusive?" (or not?) 

What are some barriers you have faced, or seen others face, within the dance world?

Is inclusion the ultimate goal? Is there a different word, or a different way to frame it, that is better?

What would a strong dance and disability network look like in our community? 

Please share!