Oakland’s AXIS Dance Company: The Rhythm of Disability

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Whether you love it or hate it, dance is universal and at the core of just about every social function. And while some may claim not to be born with the gift of rhythm, the truth of the matter is that what sets non-dancers apart from those who enjoy swaying and spinning is desire.

So, whether someone has two left feet, no sight or hearing, or are missing limbs, if they wish to shake it and shimmy, they can do it with ease.

Judith Smith, Artistic Director of the AXIS Dance Company, an Oakland-based organization that is changing the face of dance and disability, believes that one of the biggest fallacies the general public has about the disabled and dance is that people with physical impairments have no rhythm.

“A big misconception is that people with disabilities can’t dance,” Smith shares. “Another is that we wouldn’t want to dance.”

Smith, who identifies as a lesbian and disabled, thinks these outdated perspectives exist everywhere – even in the eclectic LGBT community. And often the first reaction from audience members that attend AXIS shows is that they found the performance mind blowing. Another unique attribute about AXIS is the dance company features dancers with and without disabilities together -- a style known as physically integrated -- which makes for a truly diverse dance experience.

Smith says, “It’s not just about seeing dancers who are disabled. It’s about seeing both dancers with and without disabilities moving together powerfully and creating a vocabulary that could not exist with just non-disabled dancers or with just disabled dancers.”

AXIS offers an array of workshops for adults and children, creates one to three new repertory pieces each year, and generally travels to between eight and fourteen cities per year. Additionally, they perform at several conferences that showcase inclusivity and innovation.

“I often say,” Smith shares, “we’re the dance company that goes where no dance company has been before or since.”

AXIS holds workshop-style auditions and Smith is constantly scouting for new talent. She admits the pool of trained disabled dancers is extremely small. In the past, many AXIS dancers have come through their dance classes and summer intensives, as it gives her the opportunity to get to know them in a less stressful scenario. Also, AXIS offers job training through an apprenticeship program. And while some disabled dancers may want special equipment to dance, it is not required.

“Some dancers are able to have a chair or prosthetics specific to dance, but a lot of us have to rely on our everyday equipment. It’s a money thing and it’s difficult to get sponsorships for dance compared to sports,” Smith says.

In May, AXIS will host a national convening in New York City on the future of physically integrated dance in the U.S., followed by six regional gatherings around the country. “We are touring a fair amount and preparing for our 30th anniversary,” says Smith.

AXIS will be performing at Stanford’s Live Context: Art plus Ideas series on April 23, 2016. They will also be performing in Sean Dorsey’s Fresh Meat Festival in San Francisco, June 16-18, 2016. And for those who may be interested in joining AXIS, they will be auditioning for new dancers on July 29 and 30, 2016.

For more information, please visit www.axisdance.org, or find them on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram.

Belo Cipriani is a freelance journalist, the award-winning author of Blind: A Memoir and Midday Dreams, and a spokesperson for Guide Dogs for the Blind. He was voted “Best Disability Advocate” in the Bay Area in 2015 by SF Weekly. Learn more at BeloCipriani.com.