MUSINGS Dance and disability are hardly polarised
“A s a dancer, I am a body on display. As a body on display, I am expected to reside within a certain continuum of fitness and bodily control, not to mention sexuality and beauty. But as a woman in a wheelchair, I am neither expected to be a dancer, nor to position myself in front of an audience gaze”. Ann Cooper Albright, a dancer who was severely albeit temporarily disabled, said this in her article ‘Strategic Abilities: Negotiating the Disabled Body in Dance’.
Her words force us to address the questions about acceptable and indeed unacceptable ideas of body and sexuality. Different dance forms and different cultures prescribe different aesthetic ideals when it comes to the dancing body. In one context, a dancer’s body is expected to be lean, and slim. Others expect voluptuous bodies. In some contexts, a dancer’s eyes are the topic of interest. Whatever the situation is, the ideal dancing body is strong, symmetrical and ‘abled’. Watching a disabled person perform a dance is, for many people, an unaesthetic experience, perhaps even an awkward experience. A disabled body is not considered ‘sexy’ – the idea of the ‘perfect dancing body’ has been challenged. But like many things, the idea of this ‘perfect’ dancing body is worth questioning.
It has been questioned by famous dancers and choreographers before, when dancers broke away from classical forms to find new movement trajectories and new definitions of aesthetic dance. Dancers like Albright questioned the perfect dancing body through ‘disabled dancing bodies’.
It is also worth investigating into what capability and disability is in dance. It is arrogant and presumptuous to assume that a physically disabled person is less capable of being creative and creating movement than a physically able person. The combination of a physically disabled and mentally able dancer can be a truly exciting one – resulting in new ways of constructing movement and fresh movement vocabularies. Albright explains how watching a disabled body in dance forces us to “see with a double vision, and helps us to recognise that while a dance performance is grounded in the physical capacities of a dancer, it is not limited by them.”
Moreover, to identify being disabled with the famous ‘wheelchair’ symbol is viewing disability in a dangerously narrow manner, overlooking severe disabilities that physically able dancers suffer from.
For instance, a common but almost acceptable disability that ails several dancers all over the world is eating disorders. Preventing nourishment from reaching the body and the brain in order to sustain the ‘perfect dancing body’, ironically enough, results in a disabled dancer. This disability – the obsession with being slim and slender bodied – leads to anorexia, bulimia, stress, hairfall and in extreme cases – severe psychological damage. Further, lack of financial and emotional support, unhealthy competition amongst peers, and abuse by a teacher or mentor towards his or her student also severely disables dancers. Darren Aronofsky’s ‘Black Swan’ illustrated these disabilities in a brutally honest manner.
So maybe dance and disability are not quite as polarised in reality as they are made out to be. For one, a physically disabled body is by no means incapable of generating interesting and exciting movement. And secondly, disability is not always visually identifiable.
Visually non-disabled dancers suffer other kinds of disabilities everyday. In many senses, disability and dance go hand in hand. Then, is this contradiction just about the spectator’s discomfort in aesthetically appreciating a body that is differently abled?