Running a busy non-profit can feel pretty insular at times. You often don’t have time to look up and see what’s happening around you. This past year we’ve widened our focus and found ourselves keenly interested in making connections with other people and organizations whose work parallels our own.
I think we’re looking for connections with those whose work inspires us to do even more with what we’ve got. Our leadership team traveled to D.C. and Chicago for conferences and met some fine folk doing great work around the country, but didn’t necessarily meet any kindred spirits. But this spring we’ve unexpectedly made 2 connections where we sensed we shared not only a similar creative approach, but also shared a philosophy behind the work that compels us to keep moving forward.
The first was a workshop and performance by AXIS Dance Company out of Oakland, CA. The Bay Area is a hot bed of the disability rights movement. For 25 years AXIS has been creating dance works with a mix of dancers with and without physical disabilities. Call it what you will, “physically integrated dance,” “mixed ability dance,” or “adaptive dance.” What we experienced was simply “dance” at its finest.
A couple days prior to AXIS’ performance at the Ordway, I attended what the company labeled as a Master Class. I’ve been to similar classes by companies who work in the integrated dance field. What struck me that was different about this class was that they never mentioned anything about the disabilities of some of their company members. Not once did they discuss teaching methods for making dance accessible to a wide range of abilities. They simply did it. They taught like it was the norm, not the exception, to speak and teach inclusively. Their vocabulary asked us to explore movement and dance in a way that was universal to whatever body type you happened to inhabit. The foundations for their vocabulary, much like the ones we use at Upstream Arts, were grounded in active and descriptive language (move, extend, twist, bend, curved, crooked, etc.).
Their performance a couple nights later had a similar feel. The disabilities of some of the performers were an afterthought. The beauty, skill, and vulnerability displayed by the dancers were of truly talented artists.
The whole experience was refreshing to tell you the truth. It was like getting a peek into a truly inclusive world where someone’s disability doesn’t need to be a topic of conversation. Advocacy work can be more than just talk. Advocacy can mean doing the work in the way you think it ought to be done. Access can mean more than wheelchair ramps and ASL interpreted shows. Access can also be an attitude and approach.
Every day we try to do the work as if we already lived in the world we’re trying to create. Our teaching motto is Assume Ability. We approach our engagement with every student we serve with the attitude that they WILL be able to participate, and that we WILL work together to make that happen. It’s a reciprocal relationship. We want to live in a community where that is the way things work. Too often, though, is it still the case that someone’s disability is seen as a roadblock to accomplishments. There was a Question and Answer session with the artists after the performance by AXIS at the Ordway. Through some of the questions and comments posed by audience members I got the sense that some people reacted to the show by thinking “I can’t believe how athletic and wonderful the dancers in wheelchairs were.” The world I want to live in is one where the audience is amazed at the sheer artistry, not that those particular artists were able to accomplish what they did.
Even as I write this I realize how tricky language and thought are. The word ‘disability’ carries so much weight. I would never propose that disability not be discussed. I’ve probably spent thousands of hours of my life discussing the disabilities of our son, Caleb, with friends, family, doctors, nurses, teachers, social workers, therapists, case managers, evaluation teams, and kids/parents/strangers who stop and ask about him. I never hesitate to discuss Caleb or his disabilities or disability issues. I just want the discussion about disabilities to be re-imagined.
At Upstream Arts we’re still at a point in our development as an organization where we feel the need to explain the what, why, and how of our work. AXIS Dance Company showed us a company of artists that have matured into a place where they can do the work with confidence and humility, and show us all where the priorities should be.
They proved that art, alone, and without the discussion, can inspire.
Co-Founder and Program Director
P.S. Look what’s happening in China! Look for Part II of my INCLUSIVE CONNECTIONS blog about a recent afternoon we spent with professionals working at the intersection of the arts, disabilities, and learning from the People’s Republic of China.