News

3 Standout Statements From Luna Dance Institute's Dance and Disability Panel

Panelists (left to right): Emily Nusbaum, Eric Kupers, Judith Smith, Deborah Karp and Suzanna Curtis. Photo by Aiano Nakagawa, courtesy of Luna Dance Institute

This past Saturday, I visited Luna Dance Institute in Berkeley, California, to attend the Dance & Disability Discourse & Panel—a discussion with five artists, educators and researchers about access and equity for disabled students in dance education. Here are three statements from the discussion that I found eye-opening.


"There are things that haven't changed in 30 years." —Judith Smith

Judith Smith, the founder and director of the Oakland-based inclusive dance troupe AXIS Dance Company, recognizes that although progress has been made, there is still significant work to do to provide equal access and opportunities to disabled dancers. She noted that disabled dancers can't get a dance degree at most universities, they can't drop in on any technique class they want and there aren't enough training opportunities available to them.

"Compliance with law should be the lowest bar. We should go far beyond this." —Emily Nusbaum

Emily Nusbaum, a professor at University of San Francisco who specializes in disability studies and inclusion, pointed out that conversations about access and equity for disabled people are most commonly framed in terms of compliance with the law, specifically with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which became a law in 1990. While compliance with ADA is important, it's often not enough, especially when you consider the wide range of both physical and intellectual disabilities.

"We need to question the words we use." —Eric Kupers

Eric Kupers is a dance professor at Cal State University East Bay and directs Bandelion, an integrative performance ensemble. He talked about how he has to check himself on using able-bodied language when he teaches. Words like "technique," "proficiency," and "mastery" imply athleticism and an able-bodied perspective on dance.

What do you think? What steps can dance educators take to provide equal opportunities to disabled students?

Technique
Nan Melville, courtesy Genn

Not so long ago, it seemed that ballet dancers were always encouraged to pull up away from the floor. Ideas evolved, and more recently it has become common to hear teachers saying "Push down to go up," and variations on that concept.

Charla Genn, a New York City–based coach and dance rehabilitation specialist who teaches company class for Dance Theatre of Harlem, American Ballet Theatre and Ballet Hispánico, says that this causes its own problems.

"Often when we tell dancers to go down, they physically push down, or think they have to plié more," she says. These are misconceptions that keep dancers from, among other things, jumping to their full potential.

To help dancers learn to efficiently use what she calls "Mother Marley," Genn has developed these clever techniques and teaching tools.

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Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

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"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.

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Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

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