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When Monica Stephenson was a student at Houston Ballet Academy, she was cast as Lauren Anderson's swan double in Swan Lake. The role was just a few walks in Odile's tutu and a veil as the scene changed, but it was a thrill for the 18-year-old Stephenson. Anderson, one of the few principal ballerinas of color, was the inspiration for Stephenson to attend Houston Ballet Academy.

For the role, wardrobe gave Stephenson a few pairs of Anderson's special-order pointe shoes that were brown to match her skin tone. "That really helped me," Stephenson says. "I wound up wearing her specs my entire career. Sometimes people don't realize when they're impacting a young person."

Stephenson never forgot what it meant to have a role model like Anderson. She knew she'd want to inspire ballet students of color herself someday.

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Dance News

Martha Myers, second from the left, was dean of American Dance Festival for more than 25 years. Photo by Peter Cunningham, courtesy of ADG

The event, Celebrating Diversity, September 7–10, features work by 30–35 choreographers from around the world. Modern choreographer Garth Fagan, beloved educator Martha Myers and Thunderbird American Indian Dancers will also be honored at the event, held at Alvin Ailey Citigroup Theater in New York City.

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At the first Disability. Dance. Artistry Town Hall in July, Simi Linton, Marc Brew and Dianne McIntyre discussed dance makers on disability.

Last night I attended Dance/NYC’s second Disability. Dance. Artistry. Town Hall event at New York Live Arts. The topic of discussion—disability, race and the practice of dance—brought together Dr. Carrie Sandahl, associate professor of disability and human development at University of Illinois at Chicago, and anthropologist and choreographer Dr. Aimee Meredith Cox of Fordham University. With activist/dance artist Alice Sheppard moderating the conversation, the women discussed their collaborative research on the intersection between race and disability in dance and ways in which the dance community can move forward toward increased inclusivity. Here are some memorable moments from the evening:

Dr. Carrie Sandahl

On the topic of dance-making as a disabled artist, Sandahl stated, “One thing we haven’t been allowed is the dignity of risk.” The misconception that disabled artists constantly need to be helped has been a significant limitation. Moving forward, Sandahl suggested taking the time to become familiar with differently-abled bodies through contact and communication.

The panelists addressed criticism and audiences' responses to disabled and minority artists. While Cox discussed how the underlying aesthetic of protest affects how people view black artists’ work, Sandahl expressed dismay that the majority of reviews about disabled artists’ work consists of the reviewer’s “reckoning that the performer is a human,” and mere movement description.

When asked how we talk about race and disability, both panelists agreed that we have to be able to talk about the body. “We can use fancy words like ‘intersectionality,’ but what does that really feel like?” asked Cox.

Dr. Aimee Meredith Cox

Ending on a positive note, Cox summed up why dance is, in many ways, leagues ahead of other disciplines in its ability to challenge social norms. “Dance allows for possibility,” she said. “It allows for different ways of thinking and feeling.”

The series continues with additional Town Hall meetings on October 17 and November 15. For more on dance and disability, check out Lea Marshall’s special report on mainstreaming disabled students in dance education in our September 2016 issue.

Photos (from top) by Jailene Restituyo (1), courtesy of Dance/NYC (3)

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