Creating my blended wheelchair practice… | Kat

Kat Ball, longtime collaborator with Stopgap, and current Sg2 Apprentice Dancer, shares with us her personal journey to creating a blended practice of standing and wheelchair dancing...

ID: A photo of Kat, kneeling on the floor, with her head down and both hands spread palms into the floor. In the background is a wheelchair with a purple frame.

My journey to creating my blended wheelchair practice…

In March 2017 I injured my left big toe – something which might under different circumstances be reasonably inconsequential.
However, throw in feet shaped by cerebral palsy, a 10-year history of consistently ignoring bunion pain and a steely determination to continue regardless….and the consequences become very different.

Due to medical concerns, I was required to not put weight through my foot for several months and, after several significant near-miss falls whilst using crutches, I sought the support of my colleague in using a wheelchair for myself for the very first time. This was no small decision for me, I had spent the first 24 years of my life conditioned, under ableism, to feel joy every time someone told me ‘oh, I don’t see your disability’; and the possibility of using a wheelchair had never been mentioned to me.

In starting to use a wheelchair, I was confronted with the framework of disability I had previously built for myself vs my current reality and began a very steep learning curve. How to lift my (borrowed) wheelchair across myself onto the passenger seat of my car? How to navigate dropped kerbs and crossing the road? And…. how to be a dancer using a wheelchair?

That was how I felt at first: like I was a dancer using a wheelchair.

My script of movement had been torn in two and I was, in many ways, starting from scratch.
“What feels good?” “Do those same movements look pleasing/like dance?” “How do I balance?” “How far can I tip?” “Why can’t I do those cool tricks like the other wheelchair dancers around me?” “How do I navigate contact work?” ...and hundreds of other questions.
On the flip side of this was a very deep-seated gratitude, to have a method in which to continue to access Stopgap’s classes and time in the studio. Without a wheelchair, pain and slow medical input would have seen me side-lined for much longer.

In the two and a half years prior to my toe injury I had left my full-time role as an Occupational Therapist (OT) and begun a closer collaboration with Stopgap, alongside taking locum (temporary) roles as an OT. In 2016 I had a very busy year with a myriad of different freelance dance opportunities, with Stopgap and beyond. I had no idea what 2017 held but felt proficient and reasonably confident in my dancing abilities.
Transitioning to using a wheelchair found me unprepared and unsure, I didn’t feel able to apply for any outside opportunities. Both physically and psychologically I had to ease off the throttle to re-evaluate and re-learn.

And so, gradually I became a wheelchair dancer.

To be honest the process is a little blurry, attempts to reflect at the time felt self-pitying and sticky. I do, however, remember Zumba classes very distinctly. I had always enjoyed Zumba and, after not having attended for several years, joined a group of colleagues for a class at a local community centre. My (still borrowed) wheelchair had the option for increased wheel camber (extending the axle, like a wheelchair basketball chair), which made it easier for me to keep up with the fast routines. My historical enjoyment of Zumba, and having to respond instinctively due to the pace, supported me over several weeks to reaching a stage of feeling that I was moving as one body with my wheelchair, rather than my wheels as a clunky extra. This enjoyable and empowering shift was concurrent with the creation of Stopgap’s second Seafarers production in 2018, where I was a performer in the show. The Seafarers production pruned and pushed my dance practice; Lucy Bennett (Artistic Director) worked with me to choreograph a solo; moving outside and alongside my wheelchair, and I had a short time in which to retain and hone fast paced routines in my wheelchair. Performing alongside my two distinguished wheelchair dance colleagues Laura Jones and Nadenh Poan in an unknown outdoors setting, it’s fair to say that I had my work cut out for me; and thankfully I found I rose to the occasion.

Later in 2018, I had surgical intervention to my injured toe which thankfully proved successful in reducing my pain levels. However, having learnt the hard way about not being in tune with my body, I have chosen to avoid high impact activities and use my wheelchair (now thankfully fitted to me thanks to support from Stopgap and a local charity) to complement and support myself in the studio and in everyday life. 

ID: A photo of Sg2 apprentices Abbie and Kat dancing together. Abbie on the left is in a wide side lunge, looking towards Kat and creating space in her body with arms wide. Kat is on the right, she leans over the right wheel of her chair, reaching over to touch Abbie.

Within my Sg2 apprenticeship, over the last two years, I have worked towards a blended standing and wheelchair dance practice. I faced a more difficult path to feeling comfortable re-visiting my standing dancing than I previously expected. But with support from colleagues, and a graded approach I am feeling more accomplished in my unique practice, which I hope will see me through whatever changing seasons my disability (or indeed, life, hello pandemic!) might bring.

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