Dancing with Disability
Imagine you are taking a trip to the ballet. The lights and set are bright and colorful; the costumes and music are elegant and grand. The choreography is challenging but graceful, expressive, and meaningful. Every movement conveys a message and tells a story to the audience through the performers' bodies. How do you envision the dancers? Likely you're picturing them to be tall, slender, and attractive, able to move as lightly as a bird on delicate toes that must have superhuman strength. Right?
Contrasting this stereotype is Infinity Dance Theater, a nontraditional dance company in New York City that features dancers with and without disabilities, including those in wheelchairs. Combining classical ballet with components of modern and jazz dance, the dance company was founded in 1995 by Kitty Lunn after a life-changing accident.
Lunn fell in love with dancing at the age of eight while watching the leading red-headed ballerina in the film The Red Shoes float gracefully across the screen. Once she began taking lessons, dancing took over her life: it became her passion, work, and identity. As a teenager, she danced in principal roles with the New Orleans Civic Ballet and later on joined the Washington Ballet in DC. She began rehearsing for her first Broadway production in 1987 when she suffered a horrible accident. Lunn broke her back and was told she would be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of her life. Still, she was determined to return to dancing despite the disability—as, she noted, it was exploding out of her, she needed to do it.
After spending nearly three years in a hospital recovering and working with a physical therapist who was also a dancer, Lunn planned to go to a dance class in her wheelchair for the first time. “I had to do a lot of soul searching,” she said. “I had to finally make it okay in my mind, body, and spirit that I couldn’t do all the same things. I was not going to recover or be the way I was before the accident.”
Accepting that fact and still committing to try a dance class in her wheelchair was one of the most difficult parts of her recovery. Fear of failure and rejection held Lunn back from pursuing what was once as natural as breathing to her, but she committed to moving forward.
Just participating in the class, however, proved challenging to Lunn—not because of her physical limitations but because of the attitudes of those around her. While Lunn was permitted by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 to take the ballet class, she was not welcomed with open arms when she arrived. Teachers and students alike dismissed her and didn't consider what Lunn could perform from her wheelchair to be "dance." Twenty years later, that attitude is still prevalent, and there are teachers who still won't allow her in their classes. To that, Lunn said, “I think the worst form of discrimination ever is someone judging what a person is capable of learning.”
Lunn's own teaching style is rooted in classical dance technique, and is modified from what she herself learned as a classically trained ballet dancer before her accident. She transposes traditional dance techniques to fit her ability, and in that way stays true to the art of dance.
When transposing for dancers in wheelchairs, Lunn noted that it is important not to lose sight of what the dance looks like standing up. Watching her in a transposition technique teaching video next to two standing dancers, the parallel between the two styles becomes clear. It appears as though Lunn’s shoulders act as the waist; the arms are like legs, the elbows like knees, the wrists like ankles, and hands like feet. She uses her arms to replicate the same type of lines that the standing dancers create with their arms and legs. The positioning of the body above the shoulders is quite intentional as well; for example, when the standing dancers rise to relevé, Lunn suggests that dancers in wheelchairs lift their chest, neck, and head, focusing their eyes in a slightly elevated position. Lunn said about her transposing for dancers like herself in wheelchairs that, “We are doing the same thing, differently.”
While most are, not every student and professional dancer with Infinity is a wheelchair user. Even those dancers who do use wheelchairs often move outside the chair, either through being lifted by standing dancers or by doing floor work. Many of the dancers have extremely customized wheelchairs that are designed to facilitate easier movement for dancing. The chairs are of lighter weight than average, with a sports chair base and a low back with as close to a 90-degree angle as possible. The chairs do not have brakes and would not be very comfortable or proper for everyday use, but make moving gracefully much easier for disabled dancers.
Lunn lives and teaches by a piece of advice that she received at the age of 16 by Agnes de Mille, a legendary dancer and choreographer whom Lunn credits as very influential in her life. As a dancer who stood at 5'4'' tall, Lunn had always thought she was too short, and often fantasized about having a bone transplant to make her taller. When Lunn posed the idea to de Mille, she replied, "You have to learn to dance in the body you have." While this didn't mean much at the time to the body-conscious teenage Lunn, after her accident occurred, she took this mantra to heart and used it to motivate herself and her students who often struggle with their own body perceptions. "A dancer's body is their instrument," Lunn said. "If you hate your body, it's very unlikely that you'll be able to produce anything of great beauty." Learning to accept and embrace your body's limitations is one of the most important things Lunn believes her classes teach students with disabilities.
Lunn is clear in stating that her work is not dance therapy. While disabled people certainly benefit from dance therapy, and she agrees that it is a beautiful thing to help people to express themselves through dance, Lunn is not a therapist herself. What she does instead is help teach people who move differently the techniques of classical dance—to instill knowledge of traditional dance methods in people whose bodies don't operate the way an average dancer's does.
Although Lunn "leaves the therapy to the therapists," she sees the positive impact her classes have on her students’ physical and mental health. The first thing she teaches them is that they must give themselves permission to move in ways they never thought that they could. This results in an increase in their self-esteem, as they gain confidence in their ability to move and see themselves in a new light. Their sense of accomplishment is also fed by their achievement in learning dance techniques.
"After accomplishing something,” Lunn said, “[you] can't say 'I can't' because you've already done it!" Lunn also teaches her students breathing techniques that can help improve digestion and sleep patterns. Her younger students learn spatial relationships through dancing that, considering their disabilities, many thought they never could.
Disability doesn't give or take away talent, according to Lunn. Rather, it simply limits your opportunities. Programs like Infinity Dance Theater exist to provide more opportunities for disabled individuals who want to perform. Dancing not only improves physical movement and capabilities, it promotes overall wellness by giving individuals confidence in their abilities. Giving everyone the opportunity to learn how to dance ensures that all people have the right to experience the transformative power of the arts.