MFA Dance candidate advocates for inclusivity of disabled dancers

By Racquel Royer

Six months ago, University of Maryland MFA Dance candidate Christine Hands presented her multimedia dance, “A Duet With Melissa,” about her relationship with her sister, who has muscular dystrophy.

She wanted people to know that the dance was not about her sister’s disability. The dance was about missing her only sister who lives 679 miles away in their hometown, Chicago.

Hands began researching disability in the studio and the classroom, checking out nearly every disability studies book in UMD’s Libraries and attending a dance teaching workshop conducted by Oakland California’s renowned AXIS Dance Company, known for their ensembles of disabled and non-disabled dancers.

On Wednesday, Nov. 15, she presented her story and research as part of The Clarice’s “TDPS Wednesdays,” a series of talks and workshops held on Wednesday afternoons in the Cafritz Foundation Theatre.

Clarice Business Services Specialist Claire Castilla, who attended the talk said, ”TDPS Wednesdays are a great way for students and alumni to have the opportunity to share the current work they’ve been doing.”

Hands’ presentation titled, “Innovations in Inclusivity,” told the story of her research and the way it can transform the world of dance.

“Someone who is disabled may do their version of a [ballet] relevae by doing a wheelie stand, or maybe they would choose to do a tendu with their hand,” she said. Either way, it’s a form of dance and expression.

“What is unison?” she asked. “It’s rhythmic, or can be based on spatial orientation or feelings. Someone could be dancing ‘heavy’ or ‘light,’ or maybe they should ‘throw’ or ‘crumble’ their body. Vocabulary matters.”

She showed several clips of choreography performed by bodies with different abilities that exemplified the beauty and individuality in dance works performed by all types of people, including both disabled groups and groups of dancers with mixed abilities.

Hands said increasing accessibility for disabled dancers “benefits not only those people who were previously excluded, but it changes the perspective of dancers, who may never have met a person who’s taken ballet in a wheelchair.”

Hands also said addressing access needs with practices such as asking “what do you need to know to dance with me today?” can help non-disabled dancers rethink, “how can I make myself more vulnerable and creative in this space?”

Inclusivity also means treating everyone fairly and respectfully. Hands emphasized that “everyone has a right to hate art…no matter if there are people with wheelchairs on stage.”

Hands pointed out that many times “critics, reviewers and the rest of us tend to repeatedly refer to the art of disabled individuals as ‘inspirational’ or use quotes like ‘in spite of their disabilities,’ but this is not a useful way to think about art.”

Attendee Kate Spanos, Coordinator of Marketing and Communications at The Clarice, said she noticed that while studying dance in Ireland, the people she worked with seemed more inclusive of dancers with disabilities. She said she’s hoping that the same notion will develop here.

A recurring theme of the presentation was that the inclusivity of disabled dancers should be a norm and is beneficial to everyone, including mixed gender and mixed race casts.

“It also lets dancers know that as we age and progress, there doesn’t need to be an endpoint because it’s about the art,” Hands said.

When asked where she sees the field progressing in 10 years, Hands replied, “In order to move this field forward we really need training, academia and accessibility for stage and theatre spaces.”

She plans to use what she’s learned thus far to educate others and implement new and creative ways of thinking about choreography and presentation within her work.

Photo courtesy of Christine Hands






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