Diversity as a Creative Force

the role of disabled dancers for innovation


As many organisations begin their plans for their core funding application to the Arts Council in earnest this month, our Head of Talent Development Laura Jones sends out a reminder of the valuable contribution disabled dancers can make to the art-form of dance.

Listen to an audio version of this blog read by Laura...

In November last year, the Centre for Promotion of Culture and Art for Disabled People in Korea invited me to talk about the role of disabled people in dance. I wanted to turn my speech into a blog to drive home my key message: that including disabled dancers does not dilute or lower the standard of dance, but that with diversity comes the opportunity for greater creative possibilities.

In last month’s blog, Stopgap’s Executive Producer, Sho, wrote about the lack of disabled representation in UK dance. Following on from that, I wanted to remind everyone about why equal access to dance for disabled people is so important and valuable, and to encourage everyone to think about this as we make plans for the future. You can read Sho’s blog from a link at the bottom of this page.

Two women dance together, one standing, one in a wheelchair.

Image Description: Laura, a white female wheelchair dancer with dark brown hair leans forward in a twist to meet Alice, a white female standing dancer who curls towards her. Alice has light brown hair in a long plat and wear muted colours, Laura is wearing a bright purple top. Behind them other dancers move in the studio space.

But before we go into disabled people and dance, let’s get back to the basics by talking about ‘people’ generally. About the value of individuals.

Everyone is different, everyone brings different experiences, abilities, strengths and perspectives, and everyone should be valued for their uniqueness. Being disabled should make you no less valid or valued as part of society. After all, it’s the barriers that society has created for us that denies us access and opportunities to excel. We should have a right to equal access to learning, opportunities and experiences.

Like I said in my opening, including disabled dancers does not dilute or lower the standard of dance.  In fact, with that diversity (and a dose of skill, talent, hard work and understanding) comes the opportunity for greater creative possibilities. Diversity and difference make for a richer experience. As an audience member, I am more interested in seeing a diverse cast, who each bring a unique perspective and interpretation to movement, than a number of dancers who all look and move identically to each other. Yes, seeing uniformity is one thing and can be impressive, but seeing harmony amongst differences is powerful. It gives you a hint that this fractious world could be unified somehow. Like in music, a blend of voices and instruments, harmonies and counter melodies, adds depth and a richness, so in dance different bodies and minds bring unique interpretations, variations and can be the catalyst for creative solutions rather than a focus of limitation. Seeing diversity represented on stage gives the audience a chance to reconsider both what dance is and who can be a dancer, and they might then come to address potentially negative and narrow stereotypes they have formed about difference.

A wheelchair dancer leans down towards the floor

Image Description: a black and white photo of Zelda, white female wheelchair dancer. One had sweeps down to brush the floor whilst the other grips the wheel of her chair. Her gaze is peaceful and follows her hand and her dark hair in a plait hangs over her shoulder.

When I lead teacher training, I often ask “What makes a good dancer?” The answers are regularly things like determination, commitment, creativity, adaptability, working with others, knowing your body. There’s no emphasis on dancer needing to look a certain way or be able to do a narrow set of moves.

Speaking as a disabled person, a number of these attributes that are important in dance more generally, are skills that you have to develop as a disabled person too. As I face so many barriers in life, I have to be determined. When faced with an inaccessible situation, I have to get creative.

For example, if I fall out of my wheelchair at home alone, it’s very difficult for me to get myself back into my wheelchair on my own, but these skills come into play. Figuring out how to do it, working out which way would work best, then manoeuvring myself, my wheelchair and maybe another chair to use to push on can take some creativity and adaptability. Because I know my body well, I know my hips are uneven, so I know it is easier to go one way than the other. And then, there’s the determination to just keep trying and trying until I make it.

The skills I have developed from being disabled inform and improve my dancing and the skills I gain from dancing help me deal with challenges I face due to my disability. These life experiences and constant self-investigation of the uniqueness of my physicality can also offer a lot of fresh perspectives to everyone I dance with.

A mixture of wheelchair and standing dancers in the studio

Image Description: full of colour, a mixture of wheelchair and standing dancers sweep toward the camera, arms outstretched in a moment of flight.

The most important reason for including disabled artists in dance is that Inclusion Elevates All. Making our environment more accessible benefits not just disabled people, but the wider society. For example – adding a ramp or lift in a theatre, benefits those who use wheelchairs, but also elderly or those with young children. Something similar can be done in the context of dance too.

For example:

Visual aids, pictures or props: using these to give information not just through words, but through the other senses, benefits those with hearing impairment or are deaf, those who learn visually, those who have a different language.

Open Language: this is Language that includes rather than excludes. For example, saying “Reach as low as you can today”, rather than “touch the floor”, allows everyone to achieve the same goal, whatever level they are working at.  It supports dancers to listen to and get to know their own body and challenge themselves.

Movement Principles: looking at the purpose of a movement, breaking it down, and finding a useful way to introduce and develop the skill in a meaningful way rather than just a mindless reproduction of shapes.

Movement Translation: transferring movement from one body type to another, can help to unlock more interesting moves, discovering things about the movement that you might not have considered when only seeing it on one body type.

People sit talking in a circle, some on the floor, others in wheelchairs

Image Description: a group of dancers sit in discussion in a circle, some sit on the floor others in their wheelchairs. Behind them stretch large mirrors reflecting another group, blurred, sat around a table.

It’s really important while creating this inclusive environment, to make sure that disabled people are involved with the decision making and planning. We have a saying in the disability community “Nothing about us, without us” It’s no good making adjustments to enable access, if you do not consult the people that they affect, to make sure that the changes are relevant and useful.

By learning to work effectively together by jointly making an inclusive environment, we collectively develop each person’s strengths and support each other with their challenges. We can build a stronger, more effective society along the same set of principles. So good inclusive practice is just good practice that helps everyone to make progress together. And getting inclusion right can create an upward spiral.

By doing so you are helping to develop more diverse leaders, role models, teachers and advocates, who will all continue to shape a more inclusive dance world by amplifying each other’s voices. And let’s hope that it spills out to a more inclusive society, where everyone is valued and no barriers exist.