Tl;dr I’ve been recently considering the possibility that most dancers are disabled, and this framework of thinking opens a lot of possibility and questions to consider.
I’ve been thinking a lot about disability recently. Most of this is personal. While I’ve been very aware that I’m probably disabled in some way, I’ve hovered on the edge of openly and publicly defining myself as such. This has been for a number of reasons – I’m more or less ok without accommodations, I don’t want to speak over people who are definitely disabled, I don’t have official paperwork or affirmation, it’s a stigmatizing word, I’m scared of getting it wrong…
But, as time goes on, it’s become more and more apparent how much trying to not be disabled does not go well for me. The other thing I’m realizing is how similar this is to my experience as a trans person. No, transness is not the same as disability, but my personal experience of not having role models or waypoints as I figure it out is very similar to what I experienced as a teenager. Again, I’m faced with a fact that I am not seeing People Like Me and wondering if it’s on me to be that person for someone else. So, considering that, I might write a lot more about my personal experiences and thoughts on disability in the future.
But, for right now, I want to start tackling a related thing. To be clear, I’m not completely certain where I stand on this, but I think it’s a useful framework to consider when talking about dance and disability and I’m trying it out.
(Defining disability is complicated. There are various few models of understanding disability and various definitions, none of which is completely perfect. For myself, I usually use a model and definition based on context. For the moment, I’m starting from a fairly standardone, which is the legal definition in the US used by the ADA: The ADA defines a person with a disability as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity. A major life activity is considered anything important to most people’s daily lives and can span from breathing and walking, to being able to work, to basic body functions like simply having a functional immune system. Even this definition comes up to vagueness and inclarity, and legal definition are not designed with reality in mind, but it’s a decent place to start.)
Here’s the thing: Most dancers are disabled.
I first hit on this thought when talking with another dancer about how hard it is to communicate with other dancers. In dancer-led spaces, we so often tread the same ground over and over again, speak around and over each other instead of to each other, and generally have trouble having creative, meaningful conversations.
“Of course,” said my friend, “a group of traumatized people are going to really struggle with communication.”
I had been shouting about this bullshit for ages. I’ve talked long and hard about how dance education teaches tiny children to trust their teachers more themselves about their body, denying dancers agency over our bodies even as we do more and more intense body-focused activities. I’ve talked about how dance teaches us to both let other people control our body while ignoring, even overriding, our natural warning signs of dance. I’ve talked about the ridiculously high prevalence of mental illness in dancers.
But I had never had it framed as trauma and, of course, when I thought about it for a minute, it was obvious.
Very few dancers, especially the ones who started dance at a young age, come out of dance education untraumatized.
Trauma alone is not necessarily a disability, but if we think about how it shows up in terms of our definition of disability – an inability to communicate functionally and easily within a community that is also a workplace, alongside difficulties with regulating emotions, handling difficult or charged situations, and the physical symptoms that come from trauma, among many other things – what we end up looking at is that people in this situation are not particularly equipped to be dancers, working in a severely underfunded artistic field which requires collaboration, complex processing, and physical wellness.
And then there’s mental illness in general. This is a known issue in the dance world. One of the best things my dance school did for me was provide therapy. At a school that was for both musicians and dance, this therapist told me that she mostly saw dancers and that, to summarize neatly, dancers were presenting with a Whole Lot of Problems. Lots of dancers have written about their mental health struggles, some have even openly quit for their mental health. Therapists have talked about how things like perfectionism, injury, and a lack of support systems outside of dance exacerbate depression, anxiety, and other mental health struggles. In a related vein, we’ve also got correlation between eating disorders and dance training (here’s a recent study I read on the subject in case that’s your thing).
Again, these are things that can have significant impact on a person’s ability to work, take care of themself well, and generally exist within a community.
And then there’s the issue of chronic injury. I’ll be honest I didn’t look hard for the numbers because I’m fairly confident in saying that many dancers are managing chronic injury, but I will flag this paper (I’m sure there are newer studies somewhere) which states that half of professional dancers have chronic injury. That’s a giant number. I would argue it’s probably more because the nature of dance trains us to work through injury, even while we make conscious efforts to rest. When someone’s career depends on their ability to dance, there are unavoidable external pressures to dance on an injury, and an acute injury is then that much more likely to become chronic even if it’s not considered as such.
Dancers are magicians when it comes to working with injury. We are incredibly good at doing high levels of physical activity while injured. That doesn’t mean we aren’t still injured. That doesn’t mean there aren’t impairments and pain that we have to learn to live with and work around in order to take care of ourselves and do our job. While again, the question of whether or not injury counts as a disability, what we’re looking at is chronic, longstanding things which affect the way dancers live their lives, even with good injury and pain management.
And, finally, there’s one other category of disabled dancer I want to look at and that is the people who found a home in dance. As a teenage dancer, I heard a lot of stories about successful dancers and choreographers doing terrible in school until they went to a dance class and dance worked for them in a way that school didn’t. For a long time, dance (and art in general) has offered an alternative to people who don’t fit into standard school systems. Children with learning disabilities, behavioral struggles, developmental disabilities, or even just the weirdos who don’t fit in, have found something which works for them in the creative physicality of dance, the intergenerational community, and a structure that follows their needs more closely. (For a really beautiful example, I highly recommend watching Lida Winfield’s In Search of Air. I got to see her perform it live once and I’m not going to lie – I absolutely, definitely cried).
The adult version of this is the large number of adults who cannot work the standard 9-5 office job (or the hellish physical, emotional, and schedule requirements of customer service), who survive by paying the bills through more flexible art options, including dance.
So, why is this so important that I’m writing about this instead of getting into any kind of personal reflection or awareness?
Because, regardless of how we parse it, looking at dance through the lens of “whoa, there’s a lot of disabled people here” has a big impact both on how we view dance and disability.
It tells us that creating dance spaces specifically for disabled people is good and important, but it is not enough. It tells us that the conversation can be wider.
It tells us what we already should have known – disabled people are dancing and should have the same access to dance as non-disabled dancers. Dancers should not have to choose between self-advocacy with no support and struggling through silently without support.
It tells us that we, as a community, have clear, traceable difficulties with communication and that this has a huge impact on how we are able to function as artists in collaboration (and alongside our funders, participants, and audience).
It tells us that a true push for access in dance could have incredible positive effects, both in bringing in more creative, talented people who otherwise cannot access dance, and in making it easier for the people who are already involved in the dance world.
It reminds us that, even as some dance communities have tried to mitigate the harm, dance is still a field with a terrifyingly high rate of young people burning or injuring out.
It tells us that dancers could learn a lot from disabled communities, particularly around care, rest, adaptation, community, our relationships with our bodies, and communication.
It also tells us that disability is complex. That we can have a large number of people in a physically and mentally demanding career managing severe impairments and still, on the surface, appearing to meet a definition of “non-disabled”. Whether or not an individual is disabled, this possibility gives us reason to really consider how and why we categorize disability. It encourages us to take on the complexity in front of us.
And it also tells us that dance is doing some things right. We’ve figured out a way to make our space accessible to people who can’t always function in most of society. We understand how our bodies work and how to work through injury and chronic pain. We are experts in adaptation. We know how to listen to our bodies.
(I can’t even begin to explain how weird it was to start talking to disabled non-dancers and realize a good number of them didn’t understand the basic anatomy of their bodies, simply because the medical system had failed to teach them. This is a failure of the medical system that makes me so incredibly angry. The entire way I have survived in my body has been applying anatomical knowledge from dance training to physical experience. I don’t like the thought of what would have happened to me if I hadn’t had access to this knowledge as a child.)
Despite dance being a severely underfunded, traumatizing, harmful space, we have survived. And yeah, I talk about all the negatives of dance, but some dancers thrive. There’s a reason there’s still dance in the world. We have skills to share. What is the potential if we start making a dance world that’s funded, nurturing, and safe? Dancers would be fucking unstoppable.
There’s a lot to unpack. There’s a lot to think about. I’m not sure what comes of it.
But I have been considering this framework a lot recently and I think it’s worth sharing: Most dancers are disabled.