Stretching the Physicality of Dance was a conference held at Uferstudios in Berlin 21-23 August this year. The conference aimed to push beyond expectations on contemporary dance, disability and diversity. It is one of the events which takes place in the context of Moving Beyond Inclusion, a Creative Europe funded collaboration between six of Europe's leading inclusive dance companies. Stretching the Physicality of Dance was organised by German partner tanzfähig. Candoco Dance Company artist, Tanja Erhart reflects on the event.

Stretching the Physicality of Dance

Participants warm up for the conference. Photograph: Ute Haufe

A series of questions were posed to initiate the discourse amongst dancers, choreographers, teachers, scientists and others who came together to share and gather experiences and research through their own practice:

“What does it mean for contemporary dance when other physicalities are added? Physicalities of people with disability, older people, with other cultural experiences? Developing dance from diversity: what is the artistic benefit? What is its relevance for technique and virtuosity? How can one teach given the difference in bodies?”

Jammed into two full days, were many discussions around these vital questions, presentations of different projects and shared insights of inclusive dance practice. The air was thick and filled with words from people’s mouths sharing thoughts. Not always the same, not always in agreement, but always with listening ears and curious minds ready to be pushed beyond their expectations and exploring new ways. But what are the criteria that count when having to rethink and shift perspectives from the usual and traditional ideas of movement and choreographic excellence? The atmosphere was rich. As was the final outcome.

In several smaller group discussions the participants approached this question from three different starting points: training, aesthetics and virtuosity. Three main aspects can be crystallized that all three starting points share together: representation and recognition of quality work in the arts and culture, state funding approval and disabled people in central positions. Let me explain a bit more in detail what that means.

Let’s start with the representation and recognition of quality work in the arts and culture: “It’s not social work or therapy we make. We make art.” This credo became louder and clearer along the process of the conference. What it means is that the image of inclusive dance practice has to shift from a social realm to cultural and artistic inquest and responsibility. But it’s not about denying or ignoring anything about disability.  

More representations of inclusive dance practice in mainstream media and the contemporary art world would be a chance for a wider audience to engage with the aesthetics of not everyone being the same, but all being different, and the artistic benefit of how this diversity enriches the artform. It would raise awareness for more access into traditional dance training institutions as well as access in front and behind theatre stages for disabled artists. This new space opening up could give insight into new techniques evolving from people bringing in different tools like crutches and wheelchairs and also how traditional techniques like ballet can be beneficial for a diverse cast of people.

Stretching the Physicality of Dance 2

Working group with Karin Kirchhoff (left) and Sigal Bergman (second left). Photograph: Ute Haufe

They say money makes the world go round. Perhaps. However, what I am sure about is the need of funding approvals to give time and space for a process to develop and to be able to put out qualitative work. Accessibility is still a big issue when it comes to inclusive dance practice in society and that does cost money. Money for ramps and lifts to make buildings, stages and dressing rooms accessible. To employ audio-describers to make performances accessible for blind people. To hire studios to research potential new techniques with different tools and have playtime for the curious embodied differences and minds to come together and learn from each other. And last but not least, to pay tribute and respect everyone’s engagement of time and energy to make inclusive dance practice happen.

“A goal I have is that disability is central in society to discuss dominant cultural notions from a central perspective”, Anna Mülter’s quote sums up what is an important aspect in Stretching the Physicality of Dance. Putting disability into the centre of the research, rather than disability being the researched topic itself, shifts perspective to the inside out and an understanding of culture through disability and not the other way round. So how about we try to understand dance and movement through embodied differences and not the other way round?

If we take that into account what Mülter says as well, we should respect the terms and words the disability community chooses for themselves, when we talk about disabled people. For myself I chose the scientific approach from Disability Studies in the UK, which talks about disabled people, rather than people with disabilities (USA), to emphasise how disability experience shapes our life, as a main aspect of our identities.

I subscribe to what’s called the social model of disability, which tells us that we are more disabled by the society that we live in than by our bodies and our diagnoses. Disability is not a bad word, but it also doesn’t make you exceptional.

Inclusive dance practice as a cultural model of disability is there to understand more about movement, to gain deeper insight into aesthetics in contemporary dance, to do more research on technique and to give disabled artists a platform to gain jobs in higher positions as teachers, choreographers, producers and directors. In turn, this should decolonialize them from a position where they are used to gain funding for projects, to an active, central position of experts. 

So what do we need? We need to raise awareness towards the use of language and the images we produce by using specific words in specific contexts. We need more disabled people in higher positions, and we need more space, money and time for artistic curiosity and exploring creativity of embodied differences for dance professionals and training institutions. And as a provocation let’s think about the future of the dance world in two ways; with or without diversity. Is that even a question?

Mülter