Being visible: dance, disability and difference

In This Article


  • Sarah Whatley, Coventry University, United Kingdom
  • Shawn Harmon, University of Edinburgh, United Kingdom
  • Charlotte Waelde, University of Exeter, United Kingdom


Several UK dancers with physical impairments have been developing careers as dance makers, leaders and performers but there remain many barriers for dancers with disabilities to enter training and then the dance profession. Each has a story about the experience of being accepted, or not, within the ‘mainstream’ contemporary dance environment. This paper examines the experience of artists who are contributing to a research project that brings together experts in dance and law to discover more about what would better enable dancers with disabilities to play a full role within the cultural landscape. Observations based on witnessing rehearsals together with analysing the discourse that emerges from the artists’ work shows the potential impact of this work on legal frameworks and the dominant aesthetic frameworks that take root in professional dance practice. The paper brings fresh insights to questions about how we critically engage with and value disabled dance.

Keywords: dance, disability, law, authorship, difference


The InVisible Difference project is an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funded empirical research project that seeks to extend thinking and alter practice around the making, status, ownership, and value of work by contemporary dance choreographers. With an emphasis on the experience of ‘differently-abled’ choreographers and dancers, the paper explores questions at the nexus of dance, disability, and law (specifically intellectual property, human rights and medical law). In undertaking its work, InVisible Difference relies on multiple methodologies including: multidisciplinary literature reviews; content analysis of governing instruments/texts and social media narratives generated in response to videos of performances; interactive workshops with a growing network of individuals who are interested in dance and disabled dance; micro-ethnographies of differently-abled dancers making dance in the studio and transitioning that dance to the public stage; and semi-structured qualitative interviews with dance artists, including, to date, UK-based artists Caroline Bowditch, Claire Cunningham, Chisato Minamimura, Marc Brew and Dan Daw.

Cultural heritage and disabled dance

One strand of the research is an examination of what is meant by ‘cultural heritage’ in an attempt to understand more about why disabled dance is largely absent from our cultural heritage and how it might contribute to it. At base, while ‘cultural heritage’ is intimately bound up in ideas of cultural and political identity, individual and community norms and traditions, and individual and collective rights, the international legal framework does not support one definition of ‘cultural heritage’, but rather a range of context-dependent meanings.

The first component of the definition is that a cultural practice be subject to intergenerational transmission and re-creation. This might seem to be a hurdle to the inclusion of dance. Indeed, it has been argued that dance may be indivisible from the dancer, ceasing to exist as an entity beyond its moment of performance. 1 However, the reality is that dance, even contemporary dance, is passed from generation to generation through the bodies of the dancers:

From toe to toe, from hand to hand, from eye to eye, dance, more than any other of the performing arts, has been transmitted through time by human chains of dancers, choreographers, and others involved in its creation and performance (Brooks & Meglin, 2013, p.1).

Additionally, although the act of recording dance for purposes of its preservation has its challenges and detractors 2 , the potential to record strengthens its intergenerational element. That, combined with the fact that many of the conventions specifically identify the performing arts, strongly suggests that dance must be viewed as included in our cultural heritage.

The second component of the definition is that the artefact, act or performance must link to the identity of a recognisable group. In short, just as achieving ‘humanness’ is a ‘process of becoming’, so forming identity is an active process or performance. Related to this, it has been argued that, in dance, the body is the source of cultural identity, as critical as the performance in the construction of meaning:

More and more dancers and choreographers are asking that the audience see their bodies as a source of cultural identity—a physical presence that moves with and through its gendered, racial, and social meanings. With a renewed emphasis on text, narrative, and autobiography, much contemporary dance focuses on the dancer’s specific physical, emotional, and cultural experiences within the moment of dancing. (Cooper Albright, 1997, p.xxvi).

Indeed, the body is very powerful:

Because so many of our most explosive and most tenacious categories of identity are mapped onto bodily difference, including race and gender, but expanding through a continual slippage of categories to include ethnicity and nationality and even sexuality as well, we should not ignore the ways in which dance signals and enacts social identities in all their continually changing configurations. (Desmond, 1997, p.57).

However, the body, with all its differences, is also a complicating factor because of its potential to fragment the identity which dance might otherwise help forge. In short, a variety of identities are sought to be forged. For example, some may see disabled dance (and disability arts more generally) as work created by disabled people to be shared with, and to inform, other disabled people by focusing on the truth of the disability experience (Masefield, 2006). And there are examples of those who tell a story of disability through their art 3 . Others may seek to make great art that just happens to be about disability (i.e., disability is made visible through the work, but it is not the defining character of the work), 4 and it may not matter who makes the work. Still others make work that has nothing to do with disability other than being made and performed by a disabled artist. 5 Some seek to reinstate the classical within the disabled, whereas others celebrate the different or divergent body and its capabilities (Cooper Albright, 1997).

This identity issue is complicated by the fact that identity in disabled dance may be dependent on the particular dancer. 6 If the dance is dependent on a very particular body, which is often the case in disabled dance, then the work might be viewed as even more vulnerable. But there are ways in which this vulnerability can be countered. One example is Candoco’s 7 reconstruction of Trisha Brown’s Set and Reset. Originally made in 1983, Set and Reset has been reconstructed for different companies over the years. Its restaging by Candoco was its first revision for a mixed group of dancers, and its (re)naming as Set and Reset/Reset acknowledges its re-imagination. A role within the dance was revised for a dancer with cerebral palsy (Dan Daw), and then re-revised for a wheelchair dancer (Rick Rodgers). While this serves to establish the individual identity of the disabled dancer who ‘creates the role’ in a particular way that cannot be reproduced by a dancer with a very different physicality, it also, importantly, reaffirms the substitution of dancers that is common within a repertory company. 8

The revision thus asserts the value of the dance while challenging the authority of a single version and so the formation of a singular authentic identity. This is made possible by the collision of three aesthetic sensibilities:

  • the aesthetics of the culturally and historically located work;
  • the aesthetics of the revising repertory company; and
  • the aesthetic proclivities of the individual dancers.

The result is that the work itself may be more securely located within our cultural heritage, but the specific version performed by the dancers who are core to the work is subsumed within the work’s generic identity. Viewing dance and its revision as such softens the impact of a multiplicity of identities, suggesting that disabled dance is amenable to capture by the legal definition of cultural heritage.

(Disabled) dance artists and the idea of legacy

Our curiosity about the place of disabled dance within our cultural heritage has coincided with a period of observation of our core artist in the project, Caroline Bowditch, and her current project, Falling in Love with Frida (2014), which speaks to this subject in more ways than we had anticipated. Developed out of a period of research into Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (1907–1954), known for her art, particularly her portraits, and not so much her disability, Bowditch’s project is part homage, part re-imagination of Kahlo’s relationship with her changed body post a devastating accident, and part reflection on how disability has intervened in the twists and turns that Bowditch’s own life has taken towards her career as dance/performance artist. Project members spent time in rehearsals as the project developed during which time we spoke with Bowditch and her co-performers, Welly O’Brien and Nicole Guarino, and have since reflected on the work now it is in the public domain.

A series of vignettes reveal different episodes in Bowditch’s life intertwined with Kahlo’s. By finding a theatrical form for her ‘love affair’ with Kahlo, Bowditch shows us something of Kahlo’s hidden life, the life behind the paintings. Her co-performers seemed able to reconcile the external source material that was so important to Bowditch (Frida Kahlo) with their own internal impulse for moving. Consequently, the work began to draw attention to the ways in which images (in this case the iconic images of Frida Kahlo) might transmit the somatic experience of disability, and how this can be re-embodied through dance. The process also provided Bowditch and her dancers with what seemed to be information about their own somatic experience of physical impairment as source for the performance.

Overall, what Bowditch seems to be wanting to share with us in this evocation of visual artist Kahlo, whose artwork remains, is her desire to leave her own mark, to be remembered, to leave a legacy—to enter our cultural heritage. This desire is developed through several theatrical gestures. For example, each audience member is given the script of a message that was sent to Bowditch from a childhood nurse who ‘found her’ through her online presence. Bowditch reminds us that we do leave traces and pass on our work in ways we don’t necessarily know or imagine, and these traces are not always through admired paintings in galleries, or in other forms of material objects, but in the memories of those who know us. The performance concludes and postcards are handed out as the audience disperses with an invitation to write something and post it to a friend, and also to leave some words behind for Bowditch in the gallery.

Dance critic Mary Brennan picks up the theme of legacy, describing Falling in Love with Frida as registering ‘like a massive crush’ on Kahlo but continues by asking; ‘What, if anything, is legacy? Frida never knew that 50 years after her death, Bowditch would lovingly celebrate her in a performance that is, in itself, full of memorable vitality (Brennan, 2014). 9

The historical ‘Frida’ is reconfigured and re-embodied through the contemporary bodies of Bowditch and her dancers. Bowditch’s desire to bring attention to Kahlo’s disabled body provides her with ideas about how to use Kahlo’s story and the materiality of her own body and that of her co-performers as source for creating a poetic performance work. What emerges is a poetics of disability that defamiliarises the body as it is normalised within performance practice. But Bowditch’s interest in leaving a mark will depend on the records that she makes and an acknowledgement by others that the absence of disabled dancers in our cultural heritage needs to be addressed.

Lay literacy of disabled dance

Recognising that the legal status may not be the sole determinant of the disabled dance, whether or not disabled dance does or could fit into the definition of ‘cultural heritage’ we have also embarked on an analysis of social discourses, examining comments of (1) the lay public posted on YouTube in response to a number of performances by differently-abled dancers, (2) critics through published reviews, such as that by Brennan above, and (3) dancers through questionnaires and our micro-ethnographic observations. In our survey of social media, we started by examining YouTube comment boards associated with video clips of differently-abled dance artists attached to the project, and then expanded the sample using a snowballing method. We viewed 18 clips, with many of them visited multiple times between July and November 2013. We acknowledge at the outset that social media sites, including YouTube comments pages and other computer mediated communications, are not commonly associated with deep critical thinking, and that they impose limitations on argumentation based on their structure. However, the power of such online discussion forums for enhancing education and facilitating the exchange of ideas and the formation of identities is well known. And this makes an examination of their textual content relevant. The videos that we examined exhibited wildly different levels of engagement, with some having zero comments, and others having many comments. An holistic analysis of the comments, many of which were ambiguous and open to multiple interpretations, exposed five broad and overlapping typologies of responses: gushing; projecting/sympathising; questioning; resisting; and critiquing.

The first and most populated typology is the ‘Gushing Typology’, which was dominated by representations about being inspired or amazed, and which resonates strongly with the image of the ‘supercrip’ discussed in disability studies. 10 Not far removed from this typology is the ‘Sympathising Typology’, which is characterised by statements such as: ‘I feel bad but it was wonderful,’ and ‘I feel sad for them :(‘. The third typology is the ‘Questioning Typology’. Symptomatic of this are the many comments to the effect of, ‘I don’t get it.’ While it would be wrong to read too much into such bland responses, they could nonetheless be full of meaning and significance: they could be a reference to not understanding the narrative, or the overall aesthetic; they could be a questioning of the very presence of a disabled dancer; or they could be the benign statements of individuals seeking further instruction. Alternatively, they could be grounded in an absence of language with which to evaluate or discuss the dance (i.e., ignorance). In any event, they seem most aligned with the ‘baroque stare’ theorised by Garland-Thomson (2009) 11 .

The fourth typology, and the one that generated the most interactive and visceral discussions, was the ‘Resisting Typology’, which contained an arc of comments ranging from the dismissive to the marginalising, with no apparent value other than to show disdain. The last typology is the ‘Critiquing Typology’, which was by far the least populated. Here, commentators offered an assessment of the aesthetic or mechanics of the dance and the feelings or imagery it evoked and that can serve the interests of those artists by speaking to the quality of the work.

Ultimately, there were precious few comments that engaged with the dance itself (i.e., that intellectually analysed the dance or explored the meaning, or focused on the body as an expressive mode of communication in its own terms). 12 This is almost certainly contrary to what the dancers would have wished; since it is widely accepted that the dancers would prefer to create the ‘engaged stare’: a stare that draws the looker in and toward the object, drawing its intensity from a need to know or make sense, and it is often associated with some control on the part of the staree (Garland-Thomson, 2009). The dancers’ impairments were central to most comments, positive or negative, and there was a strong narrative of ‘overcoming’ their disability.

Critic literacy of disabled dance

In our second line of investigation, we examined the place of the critic in relation to audiences for disabled dance, who are often equally challenged when looking for ways to talk about disabled dance. In an examination of newspaper articles and online reviews of dance companies featuring disabled dancers from the early 1990s to 2011, Bowditch and Pell note:

Critics predominantly discussed the morphological differences between disabled dancers and their non-disabled peers (or indeed peers whose disabilities are less visible). With disabled dancers observed as specimens and alluded to as victims, medical model perceptions of disability were embedded throughout. (Bowditch & Pell, 2012, p.148)

Too few reviews seem to follow Brennan’s example. There seems to be an absence of focus on the dance: instead attention is placed on the ‘otherness’ of the differently abled body by comparison with the able bodied using language linked to the Sympathising Typology outlined above through the emphasis on the medical model of disability.

Participant experiences of disabled dance literacy

Our dance artist participants reported persistently thinking and re-thinking on what their work is about, and the relationship of their work to disability. The participants also reported having thought deeply about their interactions and relationships with their audiences. All had experienced reactions to their work that would fit into our typologies. One participant stated, tongue in cheek, that if she set up a dance company she would call it ‘Ain’t They Marvellous’, a reflection of the sometimes dominant audience reaction to her work, which is of the Gushing Typology.

So far the research tells a single and consistent story. At base, there is a significant mismatch between the ways in which our artist participants think about themselves, their work, and the place of disability in that work on the one hand, and their lived experiences in professional dance on the other. The dancers might like to control or at least profoundly shape the ‘stare’ to which they are subject, however, doing so requires the building of relationships with audiences.


Work on the InVisible Difference project focuses on the intersections between two subject domains and explores how shared knowledge can reveal more about authorship, ownership and agency in the context of disability dance. We recognise that the idea of ‘cultural heritage’ is littered throughout the law, which imposes on policymakers and social institutions the obligation to give effect to this concept and the rights associated with it. But artists such as Bowditch are confronting the problem of ‘legacy’ in the context of the performances they want to make.

Given our initial identification of the problem (i.e., that dance made and performed by dancers with disabilities is almost entirely absent from our cultural heritage), and our empirical evidence (i.e., that publics, both lay and professional, lack the literacy to move disabled dance into its rightful place within our cultural heritage without significant help), a starting point for thinking about what the right to participate in cultural life might mean on a practical level must be the creation of an arts environment in which disability dance and the performers can thrive.

Developing a critical literacy will enable meaningful and informed discussions to take place over what is ‘good’ dance, and what is merely mediocre. It will enable the audiences to move away from the first four categories of responses we highlighted in our discourse analysis—those of gushing; projecting/sympathising; questioning and resisting—towards the informed and meaningful critiquing that disabled dancers crave and deserve. But how, once engaged, can the audience develop the necessary tools for informed criticism? Garland-Thomson talks of the ‘visual activism’ that some differently abled individuals engaged in during the 1990s and beyond (2009, p.193). This consisted of three stages: look, think and act. The ‘look at me’ and ‘think about me’ stages were designed to lead to the ‘act’ stage whereby the starer starts to feel a sense of obligation, and that sense of obligation results in behavioural changes. These changes might be ‘to vote differently, to spend money differently, to build the world differently’ (p.193). Our dancers occupy the ‘look at me’ stage. What is now needed is to give the audiences, the starers, the opportunities and the tools to enable them to develop informed thinking addressing the ‘think about me’ stage, and extend it to ‘think about me and about my work’. Using this knowledge, audiences can enter the ‘act stage’, becoming the catalyst for disabled dance to be included more securely in our cultural heritage.


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This article has not been published, submitted or accepted for publication elsewhere.

© 2015, Sarah Whatley, Shawn Harmon, Charlotte Waelde