Inside AXIS Dance Company: A Conversation with the Company

As told to Paulette Beete
photo of 5 dancers with AXIS Dance Company including two who are using wheelchairs

AXIS Dance Company. Photo by David DeSilva

Founded in 1987, AXIS Dance Company is an Oakland, California-based physically integrated dance company whose ensemble comprises disabled and non-disabled performers. As noted in its vision statement, the long-time National Endowment for the Arts grantee aims to “create a radically inclusive dance sector and world by removing barriers and showcasing the beauty of difference.” As we learned by speaking to four members of the ensemble, the company’s dedication to broadening the perception of what dance looks like is not just about what the audience sees on stage. As company member Sonsherée Giles noted in an e-mail interview, “The language I use and the choices I make to be more accessible and inclusive have been directly informed by my history with AXIS.” Here, in their own words, are Giles, JanpiStar, DeMarco Sleeper, and Yuko Monden Juma on what they’ve learned about dance and about disability from being part of AXIS, what an inclusive dance field looks like to them, and—in a nod to the current times—how the pandemic has impacted their relationship to dance.

Sonsherée Giles, AXIS Rehearsal Director, Artistic Advisor & Performing/Teaching Artist 

My grandfather and mother were both dancers, I have been dancing since I entered this life. It's in my blood and bones. I have tried to stop but it keeps coming back. It's a way of life—my first true love. I first joined AXIS in 2005. I have had many roles [including] costume designer, performer, teaching artist, and associate director…. Over the years, I have been exposed to many powerful and intelligent artists that I may have not met in a more traditional dance company. The language I use and the choices I make to be more accessible and inclusive have been directly informed by my history with AXIS. This company by its nature of being physically integrated challenges stereotypes of what a dancer looks like and who can dance. AXIS has been a home that is impossible to find in any organization that is not physically integrated. I think we strive to create a “radically inclusive dance sector" through our education opportunities for people with and without disabilities, our performances that are accessible and provide access to this form of dance, and our advocacy for people with disabilities. The impact of the pandemic is tremendous and isolating. Unfortunately I have spent more time facilitating online dance classes and work sessions in Zoom rooms on the computer then I have in my entire life; I miss contact and partnering. I am sad for performing arts in general and theaters. Art is essential, dance is essential, contact is essential.

JanpiStar, AXIS Company Dancer 

My whole life I wanted to be a dancer but because I was in a wheelchair and living in the Caribbean ( Puerto Rico) every time I was trying to take a class or join an artistic group, I was rejected. After I got tired of being told that I couldn't be a dancer, I decided that I would be a dancer in my own way. Trying different teachers and dance studios in Puerto Rico, Latin America, and around the world, I found the information about physically integrated dance and AXIS Dance Company's Summer Intensive and that's how I joined the company. I've been with [the company] for three years now. Coming to work with AXIS just confirms my belief that no matter how your body is, you can be creative and fulfill any role in the artistic world. In AXIS we don't have specific roles for disabled and nondisabled; we are all treated like equals in the dance space. Working with AXIS Dance Company has opened my mind for more possibilities in the creative space. Being a person with a disability [it’s empowering] being in a space where everyone is working together [despite] their differences physically and culturally. Being in a space where I feel invited and not excluded is for me the ideal space for everyone to enjoy movement. We want everyone to feel welcome in the dance space. Also we want to break with all the stereotypes that we have in the dance world [that say] you need to have specific parts of the body to achieve specific tasks. We want to create safe spaces for people to be creative and feel empowered… In AXIS I have the experience to share dance with so many different bodies and people that keep expanding my mind and my notion of what dance can be. The pandemic has [helped] me recognize how important the space we are moving in is, and moreso when you're using a wheelchair to move. This pandemic has made me realize how much we relate to other bodies to get ideas and create. [It] is not the same [as working together in real life]  but I'm grateful that even though the world has changed the way we socialize, we as artists keep finding ways to keep doing the work. I feel it is a great tool this virtual access that we have now in the world because that opens the possibilities to bring people together from different parts of the world.

DeMarco Sleeper, AXIS Company Dancer 

My journey to becoming a dancer started when I was very young. I had always danced on my own growing up but got more into the hip-hop genre during high school, before becoming a wheelchair user. After becoming disabled I got the opportunity to be a part of two physically integrated dance companies before finding my way to AXIS. That has shaped my ability and knowledge over time and allowed me to grow as a dancer. I’ve been a dancer with AXIS for about a year now and one of the biggest things [that’s changed] since having the opportunity to dance with artists of all types of abilities [is it’s] expanded my view as to what a person can and cannot do [and] also to how a person can overcome most, if not all, obstacles that would stop them from being seen as a professional dancer/artist. I feel that a radically inclusive dance sector generally looks at creating spaces with the least amount of barriers that keep people of all body types and abilities from dance. What this looks like to me is providing levels of education for different dance abilities that can be scaffolded and built upon, allowing artists with different body types and abilities to build foundation and training that leads them to a professional-level company. Working with AXIS has allowed me to see more of what the disability community can bring to the table and has to offer, but mostly just expanding my outlook and allowing me to see dance and other forms of art from a different perspective. I feel that the pandemic has really turned what it means to be a part of the dance community on its head, meaning how we as dancers live in a kind of bubble that you become familiar with the more time you spend in it. But I do fear that the urge to experience dance and be in a company the ways we are used to will start to weigh on the community before things start to run smoothly again. 

Yuko Monden Juma, AXIS Company Dancer

My journey [toward dance] began before I can remember. As a young child I would follow music no matter where I was, and that trend continued as I grew older. It wasn't until [I was] 13 that I had the privilege to dance in a studio; I traveled more than one hour by train to get to the studio in Yokohama [,Japan]. My passion for dance grew as I became an adult, learning about new types of dance and methods of expression. At the same time, my dream of living in America fused with my love for dance, and I decided to develop my life and career here. I have been working with AXIS for more than three years now, and in that time, I have developed a strong interest in including everyone in dance. There should be no barrier [that is] based on who you are. AXIS has created a wonderful place for people to enjoy dance together; it has changed the way I see dance, and believe it has a lot to offer by engaging the community. AXIS is a leader in integrated dance, and I would love to see that influence make an impact on all dance organizations. The message that AXIS shares makes an impact not only to dancers, but the community as well—changing not only what dance looks like, but people's notion of ability. I used to think of disability as a negative attribute, in terms of something that's missing. Now, I've come to see disability as a trait that completes someone, as a component of their identity. Where I used to think of it as a limit to what was possible, it's now a unique interpretation that adds to the beauty of the art. Social distancing [because of the pandemic] initially seemed to be a major obstacle to our mission and performances. However, ironically, we ended up engaging the community in different ways that allowed us to reach people that we might not under normal circumstances. In some ways, due to the challenges that everyone is/was facing, dance became even more important for expression and connecting with the community.  One thing is for sure, the future of dance doesn't necessarily need to happen in the same room!