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Dance and Ableism

Jenny Newstead and Hahna Briggs share their experiences of inclusive dance, focusing specifically on ableism.

Hahna: Jenny Newstead and I teach an inclusive dance class called GASP! Dance Inclusive. We run two weekly classes for individuals over the age of 16. I founded the inclusive classes after my Caroline Plummer Fellowship in Community Dance (2012) at the University of Otago. My interest in inclusive dance practices has been building for years, starting with the Smokefree Stage Challenge at high school where I did a pretty poor job at including a student with a disability into our performance. I went on to study adapted physical education at University, then worked in the field of rehabilitation before returning to University to complete my Masters in Dance Studies, focusing on inclusive dance companies.

Jenny has been with me since the beginning! We were introduced to each other by Ali East when I was at the beginning of my Masters research. We have been performing and teaching together ever since.  

Jenny: Pre-disability I had a background in dance arts as a performer and acrobat, in theatre, and musical theatre, with training in creative dance and modern dance (ballet) for competitive gymnastics and later trampoline. I continued modern dance at University while studying for a Bachelor of Physical Education in Dunedin mid 1980’s. I chose this line of study to make a difference as a result of a school friend with Cerebral Palsy being told she couldn't participate in physical education. Little did I know, I myself would acquire a disability and face the many inequalities and societal prejudices my friend faced. I went on to have a long and successful career as a Paralympic Multi Gold Medalist Swimmer and professional public speaker.  

As Hahna said, we met by introduction through Ali East at a time when I wanted to use dance as a personal rehabilitation pathway. Instead I rediscovered my love of dance through many of Hahna’s choreographic works and as a co-teacher with GASP! Dance Inclusive. This opportunity led me into teaching Aerial Silks with Brophy Aerial Studios and helped me toward my current job as Head Trampoline Coach and Programme Coordinator for competitive gym and trampoline at the Dunedin Gymnastics Academy.

Hahna: I decided to ask DANZ if I could write about ableism after Jenny explained to me that people often commended me for the work I do with GASP! Dance Inclusive, leaving her feeling ignored. To be completely honest this wasn’t something I was totally aware of until Jenny pointed it out. Hence why, with Jenny, I wanted to explore the topic of ableism more through this blog.

Ableism is the unfair treatment of people because they have a disability; it is discrimination and prejudice against people with disability in favour of able-bodied people. I believe that part of ableist culture is the separation of disability and able-bodied into two distinct categories Where one is pitted against the other, one is seen as the ideal, normal, something to aspire to; when in reality our abilities and societies attitudes towards our abilities change over time and from one context to another.

The Urban Dictionary tells us that “ableism can take the form of ideas and assumptions, stereotypes, attitudes and practices, physical barriers in the environment, or larger scale oppression. It is oftentimes unintentional and most people are completely unaware of the impact of their words or actions.” The unintentional aspect of ableism is often referred to as micro-aggressions.

Jenny: At University I experienced ableism when a paper I'd waited two years to be available, “Sports Injuries”, was held on the top floor of the Physical Education building and there was no elevator access. The university refused to move the paper to a ground floor room, so I missed out on taking something that was pivotal to completing my degree. 

Another example of ableism I have experienced was a taxi driver who wouldn't let me put my wheelchair in the boot of the car. I insisted that I needed to do this myself but he ignored me. He didn’t know how to manoeuvre the chair properly and ended up dropping it.

We have little control over people in the wider community and the assumptions and conclusions they come to. Therefore, as previously mentioned, in general when working with able-bodied people it is assumed the person with a disability was not involved in any of the leadership aspects of the work.

Hahna: When people ask me ‘what do you do’ and I talk about the inclusive dance class, the reaction is often, ‘oh wow that must be rewarding’. This is a similar response when I’ve worked for disability organisations, and to be honest it just feels patronising. I struggle to articulate why in words, but when I hear this phrase I cringe on the inside, even though on the outside I am being a good and polite Kiwi, nodding my head and smiling. A good challenge for me is to say yes, sometimes the work is rewarding but it’s so much more than that! Working with our dancers is super-duper fun, they push our creativity to the limits as we explore and learn together. Teaching the classes like any dance class can, at times, be stressful and, at other times, calming, challenging, easy, messy, energising, exhausting, surprising, heart breaking, dull and joyful.

GASP! Dance Inclusive classes are open to everyone with and without disabilities. But our classes are overwhelmingly attended by individuals with learning[1] disabilities and/or autism. On the rare occasion when someone who does not have autism or a learning disability has come to try out the class, they don’t come back. In fact, when I was running my Caroline Plummer Fellowship classes an individual turned up and was so shocked to see a room full of enthusiastic dancers with learning disabilities, she pulled me aside looking confused and asked if this was the right class. Unsurprisingly, she did not stick around. It bothers me that there is still this community imposed segregation. People seem fearful of interacting with individuals they view as different in addition to underestimating the abilities of our dancers.

Jenny: There have been a number of occasions out of our control where ableism has affected me personally. As mentioned, often our collaborative choreographies, our teaching and support of dancers in our GASP! Inclusive classes is attributed to Hahna; be it parents thanking Hahna or an Arts reviewer or our dancers themselves. It's not only able-bodied people that create ableism, but it can be reinforced by people with disabilities too. This has happened in our collective when I was mentoring one of our dancers to produce their own choreography. They publicly thanked Hahna and another local dance mentor, the latter having had no input into the choreographic process or performance. This left me feeling minimised, under-appreciated, and hurt.

Hahna: Jenny provides an excellent example about how ableism can take a significant emotional toll on individuals. Ableism impacts on an individual’s ability to participate in the arts and access education, healthcare, employment and so on. People with disabilities don’t see themselves reflected in the media, or when they do the representations can be one-dimensional and stereotypical. Individuals with learning disabilities are told they can’t or shouldn’t be in romantic relationships and are denied a complex and fluid sexuality. In other words ableism can impact every facet of an individual's life.

So, how can we combat ableism and what steps can people take to prevent it? Below is a non-exhaustive list of ideas:

  • People without disabilities can challenge those around them when they hear ableist language and behaviour.
  • Consult people with disabilities when making decisions that will impact them and remember the well-known phrase: “Nothing about us without us”.
  • Make work that challenges common stereotypes about ability in dance and society. If you don’t have a disability, collaborate with a diverse range of dancers to do this.
  • Hire dancers with disabilities. Be open minded about the skills someone with a disability can bring to a company or project.
  • Consider what changes you would need to make in the way you teach your dance class to ensure a person with a disability could easily participate.
  • Look out for teacher training that focuses on inclusive dance practices.
  • Review your company or dance school’s policies and procedures to include specific mention of disability and diversity, e.g. discrimination policies.
  • When you do hire dancers with disabilities make sure to pay them the same amount you pay dancers without disabilities.
  • Create opportunities in your class or company for people with disabilities to take on leadership roles.
  • Attribute ownership of work to people with disabilities and celebrate the achievements of dancers with disabilities.
  • Art reviewers and audience members read performance programmes and make sure you acknowledge all of the right people.
  • We all need to be aware of our own assumptions about disability. Remember that people with disabilities are complex individuals like anyone else with a range of experiences, beliefs, and other identities such as gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and religion.

[1] I'm using learning disabilities instead of intellectual disability. I've recently learnt from a disability research project I'm involved in that People First prefer learning disability over intellectual disability, and so I want to respect that preference.

Dance and Ableism

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