The Dance Enthusiast Hits The Streets for "Disability, Dance, and Artistry."
“This is not a convening, but a movement, and we all have a stake in it,” Lane Harwell, the executive director of Dance/NYC, avowed. His organization marked the 25th anniversary of the American Disabilities Act with an all-day conference entitled “Disability, Dance, and Artistry.” Held on July 8th at CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, the theme was one of inclusion and equity in the arts for people with disabilities. Following movements for disability rights, Dance/NYC champions the slogan,“Nothing Without Us” and insists that meaningful change can only be made when disabled New Yorkers are involved and have a say in the creation of our present and future arts experiences.
“Disablity, Dance, and Artistry” was one of the first public events to be held as part of a bold initiative of study, research, discussion, and presentation begun by Dance/NYC in 2013 that will extend through 2016 — and whose effects, hopefully, will reverberate far into the future. The group's first publication, “Discovering Disability: Data & NYC Dance,” came out in May of this year.
In attendance were representatives of the many foundations funding this initiative (for a list click here) along with luminaries and advocates for the disabled, and a diverse room of interested citizens: dancers, choreographers, administrators, journalists, and government and CUNY officials.
Victor Calise, the Commissioner of the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities, advised the room that New York City is home to over 800,000 people with disabilities, 10% of the population. His job with Mayor de Blasio is to bridge the inequality gaps felt in housing, transportation, and employment opportunities, to name but a few. He also pointed out that he was delighted to be a partner with Dance/NYC — a partnership forged as the result of being blind-copied on an email sent out by Harwell two years ago.
The keynote speaker of the day was Simi Linton, author, consultant, public speaker, and one of America’s foremost experts on disability. She spoke of our current national policies as exciting and disappointing, citing that while access to rights and liberties for the disabled have grown, there are still laws that go unenforced, and a United Nations Treaty — the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities— that has yet to be ratified by the United States. Still, she reminded us, “A disability arts and culture movement is growing. Artists of all genres are countering stereotypes…taking an exciting provocative look at disabled artist’s and people’s lives.” Linton refers to this surge of new voices in the arts as the “vantage point of the atypical,” and in it she sees possibilities. Her knowledge and passion, along with her questions and caveats for the audience, filled the morning with a plethora of stimulating yet daunting thoughts.
At the very basic level, as we move towards inclusion, what words do we use? Vocabulary has limits, and even within the disabled community there are disagreements about the adjectives, adverbs, and nouns used to identify themselves. Later in the morning after Linton’s keynote, there was audible ruffling and nayying in the audience during a panel discussion led by dance critic Deborah Jowitt. Someone used the adjective, “wheelchair-bound,” and it wasn’t reacted to with pleasure.
While it may be simple for a non-disabled person to understand why the term “wheelchair-bound” is offensive (it does make the person in the chair sound weak and lacking personal agency), it may be more difficult for artists to understand why the disabled community might be offended if members of their group should want to be considered “artists” first and “disabled” second. After all, isn’t it within the artists’ power to choose their own identity? In rebellious contemporary art, who wants to feel they are forced into any definition?
There may be little or no argument for the need to be more inclusive towards people with disablities in arts and cultural activities, but Linton wisely pointed out that it’s necessary to continually question ourselves about who we are seeking to change—is it people with disabilities or society-at-large?
“Are we seeking to change dance or disability?” Linton asked at the beginning of her provocative and informative address. The answer, from the very mixed-ability audience in attendance, was a resounding,“YES!”
*SPECIAL NOTE: Simi Linton is the subject of a documentary, " Invitation to Dance" A DOCUMENTARY FILM BY CHRISTIAN VON TIPPELSKIRCH & SIMI LINTON.
"Dance is the public expression of pleasure and freedom. Dance shouldn't be restricted to people on feet, people who can see, people who are young, thin, and popular. Our bodies in motion insist that the terms dance and dancer be redefined."--Simi Linton
Check out Dance/NYC 's Disablity Resources