Dancing While Black and Disabled

6 years ago

I love reading Black Swan Diaries; this is a blog written by Aesha Ash, one of the very few African American professional ballet dancers. If you have never seen her dance, do so. She is utterly gorgeous. Her blog is about some of her experiences as a dancer in the professional ballet world.

This week's posting is about race and ballet. She calls it: "shut up and dance." Dancers are not supposed to bring our personal issues, baggage, concerns, questions and experiences into rehearsal (unless the process requires this kind of exploration). This is true for some modern and contemporary dancers and even more so for ballet dancers, like Ms. Ash. In general, the ballet world is less accepting of anything that might indicate difference than the modern dance world (though it is tough going in either place).

Ms. Ash questions what happens when people cannot speak out, say, about race. The post features a picture where the dancer (Ms. Ash) appears to be silenced by her pointe shoes -- the ribbons of the shoes seem to make a large "x" across her mouth. (If you can look more closely, though, the tape doesn't actually visibly meet the ribbon.) Either way, though, it's a striking picture.

Ms. Ash writes:

For instance, were individuals in the dance world also fed up with constant reminders of diversity problems? Do discussions about race serve to perpetuate racial attitudes and hamper progress? Does the failure to address significant racial disparities in society make issues of race and inequality go away?

I never wanted to spotlight my race throughout my career, but the topic always seemed to arise.

Her comments are a typical and effective formulation of the problem people of colour face in the workplace and in the world at large. How do we, as a nation, talk about race? How do we talk about race while we are in the workplace (as opposed to at home)? Why is it people of colour keep having to talk about our race?

Race in my dance world is difficult to categorize. In general, most of the dance companies that I watch seem racially integrated. That said, the meaning of "integrated" is different for each company. I also am able to go to see companies whose work specifically explores race and ethnicity as a topic and/or whose work draws on/explores dance forms/movement vocabularies that come from a specific racial or ethnic heritage.

All that said, I don't know that it is a panacea. I don't know, for example, about funding. Are companies whose work is "unmarked" funded more often and in greater amounts than those whose work is not? I don't know, but I could bet the answer is probably. Do mainstream audiences turn out for work that is explicitly tied to a particular racial or ethnic group? I don't know, but I could bet the answer is probably not as much. What about things like presentation, booking, production? Unless you are staging your own show or submitting to a defined festival (Black Choreographers Festival, for example), how easy is it to get on the stage? Probably not as easy.

What about my life as a dancer in a physically integrated company? Well, you know, disability does odd things there. The disability circles I travel in personally (i.e., outside my dance life) specifically engage the invisibility and marginalization of people of colour in the movement. We talk about the ways the movement has and hasn't been able to include the experiences of people of colour. But for the past I don't know how many years, my company has been able to hire and keep several disabled dancers of colour. In fact, I'd guess that the percentage of people of colour among our disabled dancers is larger than the percentage of people of colour among our non-disabled dancers.

I don't know how to interpret that. I don't think it's necessarily about either my company or about disability culture as a whole. At a rough guess, I think it's about the modern dance world. But that's not my point today. On a day-to-day basis, I don't know what to do with my racial difference. I'm not even sure that it is consciously recognized in anyone's mind but mine.

After a show, audience questions focus solely on my experience as a wheelchair user. It might have penetrated their subconscious minds that they are looking at a woman of colour, but their conscious mind asks only about the disability. That's partly because we need especially established environments to ask safely even the most basic of questions about race. I can't imagine anyone coming to something framed as a performance around the integration of disabled and non-disabled dancers asking about race. It would be outside the invisible but mutually agreed socially allowable norm.

By choosing to work where and how I do, I choose to have one part of me more recognized than any other. My choice, my problem? Not so fast. That's not so clear. I think there's something else going on. Something that I might lightheartedly formulate as "disability bats last" or "disability shouts loudest: or, even, "disability is my squeaky wheel."

Take, for example, what happens to my identity as a woman in the presence of my disability. Gender becomes explicitly visible in our current rep in two ways: dances that engage the question of sexual or romantic relationship and moves of extreme strength/speed/delicacy that can be tied to the norms of gender. But it's also partly about the disability shouts loudest thing.

We were once reviewed by a critic who claimed disability as a new gender because we used our chairs to lift. Though, nowadays, women lift each other and men with increasing frequency, lifting is traditionally the prerogative of able bodied men. This critic seemed to see our chairs assuming a "masculine" role, regardless of the actual gender of the chair user. We were invisible; our disability took precedence.

Things are even more complicated when it comes to race. I do occasionally bring African influenced movements into my work, but with the exception of taking Horton in an overwhelmingly white modern dance situation, my experience of an African dance class in majority African American situation has been unwelcoming. That's one of those things about how race and disability play out in the non-dance world.

I love how I feel in West African tradition dance classes, but it has been made pretty clear to me that other dancers don't feel that I have a place in their world. It's not because I can't dance -- several of the dancers who have been most unfriendly have come to our performances and have celebrated our/my work. It's because my disabled dance doesn't belong in that world. It's because my body doesn't have a place in that dance tradition. I do my thing in a world where my movement focus is on my disabled body.

I choose to work here, yes, but I also have to. I couldn't show up to an audition for black dancers and expect to be taken seriously. The same would be true for a mainstream dance audition or for an audition for a particular technique. Local dancers know about our company and what we do, but there's no crossing of the lines. I have talked to several instructors about being in their classes and about classes they might recommend to me. Stony, hard faces; polite verbal demurrals. I should just show up and force the issue, but who wants to do that?

My company expressly attends to the diversity of bodies and movement potential created by the difference of disability, not the difference of race (or gender). And although our personal lives and experience may influence what we do, we mostly work in the abstract. It is very easy to make visible and meaningful the difference of my disability when asked to move across the floor. I don't know how I would make legible the difference of my race. And, to be honest, I am not concentrating on that part of me. My conscious awareness is directed to the execution of the task; I'm not thinking about all the different things that I bring to the task.

Here's what I mean. My hand looks different from other hands as it strikes the wheel. But how it strikes the wheel is not an immediate function of my race. I don't know how it is that I would move differently if I were consciously to move as a disabled woman of colour. (I'm going to leave my other identifying communities aside for a moment because they aren't visible.) I do know that I can perform my equivalent of hip hop moves or make my equivalent of modern and African dance lines.

So, I have a question for myself. How do I lay claim to my heritage as I do what I do?

This image is from a series of pictures taken by the Wizard (my partner in life and marriage) in 2007. I had just seen the Alvin Ailey Dance Company and the Urban Bush Women. Their work in modern dance explores how contemporary dancers can work with their racial, cultural and ethnic traditions. This bird like shape -- arms spread like hovering wings -- is a part of their movement vocabularies.

I wanted to capture that shape in my own body; it meant so much to me. Wizard and I went outside to see what we could see. We snuck up against our neighbour's garage wall, and I tried to find the bird shape in my own body. (More complicated than it looks, given my starting point in a chair, but this is one of the better attempts.)

I keep a small symbol of it right here on my blog -- in the header image and my explanation of it from a 2009 post.

I drop into that bird position, and I feel at home. I drop into that bird position, and my body feels as if it has been there for centuries; it takes on the history -- movement and political -- of all that I am and all that I can be seen to be. When I drop into that bird position, I feel safe, secure, and strong. I love the way it blends an African dance shape with a wheelchair. I love the contradictions it seems to imply. That's why I haven't updated my site. That picture reminds me of who I am as a dancer. It invites me to become who I might be as a dancer.

That last line is the key.

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