Shortly after my two-month stint in a wheelchair, I was speaking with a friend about the whole experience. I’d been regularly frustrated by the lack of disability accessibility and by people’s lack of sensitivity and awareness.
“There is no such thing as disability,” he remarked. “There is only a lack of accessibility.” What a profound statement of truth.
Similarly, I believe there is no such thing as the inability to dance. I find that the only limitations around dance are in our hearts and minds — manifesting in the form of limited access to dance venues and rigid ideas of what dance should look like.
Take my experience dancing at a summer intensive with Axis, a mix-abilities dance troupe. In this crowd, nothing stands in the way of people dancing: not chronic pain, not paralysis from the waist down, not even four missing limbs.
Because this group of people is challenged by physical limitations, they have thought extensively about movement. As a result, I find that they are far less physically constricted than most able-bodied people.
Those with a limited concept of what dance or movement should look like are frozen stiff when it comes to stepping outside their fixed paradigm. Instead of daring to dream with the imagination of a child, instead of running forward with the curiosity of an explorer, instead of envisioning the human body with the can-do attitude of an inventor, they simply say “impossible.”
And here’s the thing: When they do that, they not only deny themselves a new kind of freedom. They also clip the wings of those who can fly.
For years, I attended a local freestyle dance community that attracted dancers, bodyworkers, and the like. While most people danced barefoot, I wore jazz dance shoes with rubber soles. Given the litany of issues in my body — including the fact that when I walk without cushioning, I can get the sensation that I’m stepping on a knife or glass — I simply cannot dance barefoot.
While the group danced on Friday night, the Jewish Sabbath, and I was not entirely comfortable with going to a paid venue on that night, I often went anyhow. Given the way that dancing freed my body and soul, I felt it was one of the most profound things I could do to celebrate G-d and the Sabbath.
I was still getting acquainted with dance as a tool for transcending and healing from pain. I had not quite put together a home routine, so going to this dance night was one of the few times I knew my body would be pain-free and come alive.
One night over a year ago, shortly after the community switched dance studios, one of the organizers approached me and informed me that I could not wear shoes on the dance floor. “These are dance shoes,” I assured her. “I don’t wear them outside dance studios.” “It doesn’t matter,” she replied. “You can’t wear shoes in here.”
I explained to her that I have a disability and let her know that as a result, I cannot dance without shoes. She told me that the only shoes I would be permitted to wear were jazz slippers or the equivalent. Since they provide no support or cushioning whatsoever, they are useless to me — and I let her know as much.
“Sorry,” she said, her body language conveying that she actually didn’t give a rat’s ass, “but you can’t wear shoes with soles. The manager of the studio doesn’t allow them, because they leave streak marks on the floor.”
I assured this woman that I had danced plenty of times with my shoes, without ever leaving streak marks. “I’m aware of the issue,” I said. “I’ve danced for many years with [this community], and I’ve danced at another studio where they don’t allow shoes. I’ve never left a streak mark.”
“You can’t dance with shoes,” she repeated firmly, with the energy of a police officer enforcing a law. “If you’re not going to dance barefoot, you need to leave.”
“I want to be very clear,” I responded, “that in effect, you’re kicking me out of [this community] because I have a disability.” “Sorry,” she said.
She didn’t acknowledge there was a problem — not just for me, but for anyone else with a disability who needed to wear shoes or, for that matter, use a wheelchair. She didn’t offer to bring up the issue with other organizers in the collective and think with them about a solution.
She offered no heart, compassion, thought, imagination or effort. All she wanted was to get rid of me and get back to her own able-bodied dancing as soon as possible.
So much for a “conscience” dance “community.” Given their thoughtless choice of venue and militaristic enforcement of its rules (opting for a”no pets period” kind of approach instead of a “no pets except guide dogs” kind of approach), floors are apparently more important to this crowd than people.
The incident happened during a period that I barely got out of the house, not only because of the pain itself, but because of the domino effect of that pain. This dance space was one of the few places where I could come alive, and one of the only spaces where I could connect with community. In one fell swoop, one person took it all away from me.
I considered staying and dancing, challenging her to stop me. I considered going up to everyone and letting them know what was happening. I considered streaking the floor on purpose on my way out the door.
But I was feeling too traumatized to fight. Instead, I left. I cried the whole way home and continued crying when I arrived. Over the coming months, I made numerous attempts to address this issue with the collective.
I never got any response.