BY EMMALY WIEDERHOLT; ILLUSTRATION BY LIZ BRENT-MALDONADO
Kitty Lunn is a ballet and modern dancer and teacher, a disability activist, and the founder of Infinity Dance Theater, a dance company founded in 1995 featuring dancers with and without disabilities. Based in New York City, Kitty is committed to bringing motion and movement to a new level of inclusion by expanding the boundaries of dance and changing perceptions of what a dancer is. To this end, she has developed wheelchair dance techniques strongly rooted in classical ballet and modern dance.
To learn more about the Discussing Disability in Dance Book Project, visit here!
Image description: Kitty is drawn seated in her chair and facing left. Her right arm is extended diagonally from her shoulder, and her left arm is extended upward but bent at the elbow. A red zig zag line of energy goes from her arms down her torso and legs.
How did you get into dance and what have been some highlights in your dance history?
My grandmother took me to see The Red Shoes for my eighth birthday. I looked up at that beautiful red-headed ballerina, and I wanted to be her. I was lucky enough to have lessons. I’m from New Orleans originally, and my teacher was from the Paris Opera Ballet. She recognized something in me and put me on track to become that red-headed ballerina. That’s how it all started.
From New Orleans, I went to Washington Ballet. I had the opportunity to work with many famous dancers, including Erik Bruhn, Margot Fonteyn, Rudolf Nureyev, and José Limón. José was my first introduction to modern dance, though I later met Martha Graham.
When I had my accident in 1987, I thought my dancing days were over. I was in the hospital for almost three years. Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. By 1992, I was ready to go back to dance, and didn’t think twice about taking class. I didn’t realize at the time that what I was doing was so radical; I was taking regular ballet classes in my wheelchair.
My first class back was on a Saturday at noon at Steps. Vladimir Malakhov and Paloma Herrera were in that class. They made a place for me at the barre. It was wonderful. I knew then that I was going to be okay.
That is not to say everyone was thrilled I was there. They still aren’t.
How would you describe your current dance practice?
I take either ballet or modern six days a week. This morning I took a Horton class. I currently rehearse twice a week, though that increases in the summer. Right now, I’m rehearsing at Hunter College. In the summer, there aren’t as many classes, so I have more access to the space to teach and rehearse.
I create my work first and then I schedule a show. I don’t schedule a show and then force myself to create. This is because of the dancers I work with. I often have to train them from scratch. This is especially true of those in power chairs. I never put someone onstage just because they have a disability. The training process can take months. When the piece is ready or near completion, I think about where we will perform it.
A lot of theaters in New York are not wheelchair accessible. This is also a problem with touring. I used to travel five times a year, but it’s difficult with power chairs and manual chairs. I don’t travel as much anymore. I’m going to be 70 soon. I’m at an age and station where I do the work I want with the dancers I choose.
When you tell people you are a dancer, what are the most common reactions you receive?
People assume that I used to be a dancer. I used to get that a lot. I don’t get that as much anymore because I’m pretty well-known in the circles I travel in.
What are some ways people discuss dance with regards to disability that you feel carry problematic implications or assumptions?
People get really hung up on the happy cripple thing and how courageous and brave I am. It takes a while to get to the art. In interviews, I tell people that my accident was an accident; what I do now is a choice. If you find it inspirational, fine, but let’s talk about the art. Those of us who toil in this genre, we don’t look at what we’re doing as brave and courageous. I think some of the topics I have covered are brave and courageous. I’m a risk-taker that way. But there are always going to be those who are amazed I breathe, dress, and feed myself.
I am not a disability rights in-your-face kind of an activist. I have always let my work speak for itself. I don’t consider my disability as the paramount thing in my life. I describe myself as a woman who is an artist – and by that I mean dancer and choreographer – with a disability. It’s not that I don’t refer to myself as a disabled person, but there’s so much more to me than my disability.
I don’t make dances about disability. My disability informs every aspect of my life; I don’t put my disability away when I go to sleep at night, and I’m still disabled when I get up in the morning. I don’t make dances about disability but, the fact that I’m doing what I’m doing, some would consider me politically active. I don’t think about my disability until I’m facing a bunch of stares and there’s no way for me to get in. Or if I really need to go to the bathroom and there’s no place for me to go. It’s not that I’m trying to not be disabled; my disability just is. It’s neither good nor bad. I don’t think of it as a negative unless there’s something I want to do, and there’s no way for me to do it.
As far as press, there are still many mainstream dance folks who do not think what I do is dance. I don’t care. If someone’s outlook is so narrow they can’t get past the fact that different bodies move differently, that’s their problem.
In my lifetime, theaters were shut down because there were mixed races dancing together. New York City Ballet was ticketed because Arthur Mitchell was dancing with Tanny Le Clercq. People were incensed that a Black man was partnering a white woman. I think the solution to the problem is to get out there and make the work that matters, regardless.
Do you believe there are adequate training opportunities for dancers with disabilities? If not, what areas would you specifically like to see improved?
I didn’t realize it was radical when I went back to class. They had to let me in because the ADA said so. Twenty-five years ago, I thought by now there would be 25 of me, but there aren’t, and that makes me sad. It’s not that my way is the only way. My way is a way that has worked very successfully for me and my students.
There’s a whole philosophy, particularly on the West Coast that, if you do contact improvisation, you don’t need technique. I disagree. When Prince Siegfried lifts Odile in Swan Lake, that’s weight sharing and counterbalance. I use a lot of contact improvisation in the rehearsal process but, after a while, it no longer becomes improvisation. We keep some things and throw out other things.
My choreography looks different on every body. I like that. It makes the process very dynamic but can also make it slow. Disability is not tube socks; it’s not one size fits all. I happen to have a spinal cord injury. Even with spinal cord injuries, each one is different. I have several dancers with cerebral palsy, and each is different. I’m interested in those differences.
When I train my students, it’s not that I believe my class is the be-all-and-end-all. I’m trying to give them enough basic technique and confidence that they’ll take the risk of putting themselves in a mainstream class.
That’s how it’s going to change. It’s not going to change by constantly segregating ourselves. Believe me, there are many more non-disabled dancers than disabled dancers. I tell people all the time: “If you want to be a dancer, go where the dancers are. If it’s an open class, they can’t not let you in. But you have to grow a thick skin.”
Would you like to see disability in dance assimilated into the mainstream?
I would, yes. I would love that. We can reach more audiences that way. When we start seeing dancers with disabilities guesting with Mark Morris or New York City Ballet, that’s what’s going to change things. But I don’t think it’s going to happen in my lifetime. I’m not saying that Infinity Dance Theater can’t hold an audience on its own – we certainly have for almost 25 years. However, dancing is a choice. It’s not an entitlement. I started dancing when I was eight. Most dancers with disabilities come to it later in life. That’s okay, but they have catching up to do. The disability community is not willing to take a lot of risks in terms of putting themselves in a mainstream position. If you live somewhere like New York City where there’s dance going on practically everywhere, then go put your money down and put yourself in a class. I understand it’s frightening. Dance is tough. But if you’re waiting for someone to welcome you, not everyone will. Misty Copeland didn’t become a principal dancer with ABT because she is Black. In many ways, she became a principal dancer in spite of being Black. I get a little frustrated when people believe they need special considerations.
I would say the same thing to a person who is non-binary or African American. Who is stopping you from dancing? I do a lot of public speaking on this issue. We have to take responsibility for our own pursuits. God help us if we ever truly get the full promise of the ADA, because then people will have to stop complaining and go to work. If you want to work, go do your work.
What is your preferred term for the field?
I hate the term “special needs” with a passion. I would prefer we get rid of cutesy terminology like “special needs” or “temporarily able-bodied” or “special abilities.”
I would rather be just a dancer. If it must be some label though, I would call it “disability dance artistry.” I’m on the taskforce at Dance/NYC, and that is our collective preferred term. I don’t mind being called a dancer with a disability, but I look forward to the day when I can just be a dancer.
In your perspective, is the field improving with time?
I’ve been around long enough to see that, yes, there has been change. I also know that, in some areas, a lot has not changed. There are times when I think it was better 10 or 15 years ago. I live in New York City, which isn’t a very accessible place. Some subways have elevators, but a lot of times they don’t work. Those kinds of hassles that wouldn’t necessarily make or break your day make or break my day.
I look at the work I do and the students whom I have influenced, and I’m pleased with the state of the art. What I’m not pleased with is the feeling that disabled dancers don’t need to learn how to dance.
Any other thoughts?
I get a lot of criticism. There are many even in the disability community who think I’m an assimilationist. But I needed to get back into dance class. I was a dancer when I became disabled. I tried to stop dancing. It almost killed me. I was not successful in my suicide attempt. Who I am is a dancer, so I had to find a way to keep dancing. That is who Kitty Lunn is. I’m waiting for the world to catch up with me.
Photo by Russell Haydn
Photo description: Kitty sits in her wheelchair onstage in a red dress. She is facing to the right, and her right arm is outstretched to clasp the hand of someone not in the picture. She is looking intently at the person whose hand she is clasping.
To learn more about Kitty’s work, visit www.infinitydance.com.
To learn more about the Discussing Disability in Dance Book Project, visit here!