Since antiquity, dance has been an important form of human expression.
Illustrations depicting dance were inscribed on Bhimbetka rock shelters in ancient India 30,000 years ago, while various ancient civilizations recorded their reverence for dance through painted images in scenes portraying religious ceremonies and entertainment activities.
Although dance is then a historic tool that humanity has used to express itself throughout the ages, physically inclusive dance has only emerged since the 20th century.
Artistic Director Karen Petersen of the Forward Motion Dance Festival and Conference of Physically Integrated Dance tackles the issue involving this disparity by bringing professional dance artists, with and without disabilities, to educate and present physically integrated dance around the globe.
Now in its second year run in Miami, the Forward Motion Dance Festival and Conference took place last month bringing dance artists of all abilities together in a creative and teaching space.
Although the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1990 as a civil rights law to prohibit discrimination based on disability, physically integrated dance groups in the U.S. are less common than their counterparts in countries like the United Kingdom.
Petersen explained, “Disability rights and funding are more prevalent in the U.K. and I believe the London Arts Council has funded dance and disability groups for a longer period of time than the United States.”
Candoco, a dance company of disabled and non-disabled dancers in London offers its dancers full-time salaries, medical insurance, and travel benefits.
“This is unheard of in the United States for a physically integrated dance group,” said Petersen. One of the sessions at the festival and conference was a Miami/London Dance Exchange Preview Performance presented by Karen Peterson and Dancers with the London based, Step Change Studios, as part of Miami-Dade County's International Cultural Exchange Program.
Rashmi Becker, the founding director of Step Change Studios, described how her studio became involved with the Forward Motion Dance Festival.
“I was dancing in New York and meeting different inclusive dance companies to learn about the U.S. approach. A colleague mentioned Karen Peterson and Dancers and they just happened to be performing in New York – so it seemed fated!”
Petersen invited Step Change Studios to be a part of the Forward Motion Dance Festival and Conference. Becker, who performed in the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 London Olympic Games, described the experience as valuable.
“It was interesting to meet dancers from the U.S. and hear about their experiences while discussing differences between the two countries when it comes to dance and disability.” Becker says that international exchanges helps to challenge thinking and develops new ideas for individual contributions. “I certainly left with a clearer sense of focus and what I want to achieve with Step Change Studios moving forward: namely – to focus on great dance and creating more opportunities for more people.”
In a panel debate following the Miami/London Dance Exchange Preview Performance, comparisons on the experiences of British and American dancers of physically integrated dance were discussed. Funding and long-term cultural change were among the key points identified to create an environment that promotes diversity in dance.
Lauren Russell, a professional dancer associated with Step Change Studios, said that there are still far too few opportunities for disabled people to access the quality education that they need for a career in the dance sector.
“I hope we get to a point in the future where inclusive dance companies aren't needed because disabled dancers are graduating into mainstream companies.”
Russell elaborated that specialized and inclusive companies are needed to fill the gap and offer training and experience at a professional level. Becker added, “I think a distinction should be made between social value of dance at a community level and professional artists feeling like they are expected to be the ‘poster child’ for disability or inspiration porn.”
Both Becker and Russell stated that dance is helping the issues of exclusion and marginalization to be addressed. When asked about physically integrated dance in LGBT communities, Becker said, “dance spaces are becoming more blurred,” and recalled how dancers are occupying multiple spaces.
Russell added that she found many people in the dance community more accepting of her sexuality than the LGBT community has been accepting of her disability. “’Dancer' is a much larger part of my identity that gay or disabled.” Becker stressed “it is critical to me and my team to reach new audiences and challenge preconceptions of inclusive dance.”
On reaching new audiences at the Forward Motion Dance Festival and Conference, Becker said that the event was a great opportunity to bring different artists and audiences together.
“The best collaborations are those that grow over the longer term so I hope we can continue to develop the partnerships we have established through the Forward Motion Dance Festival and Conference moving forward!”
“The things that bring us together prevent us from falling apart,” said Becker.