Alexandria Wailes: “Let Us Move!”

BY EMMALY WIEDERHOLT; ILLUSTRATION BY LIZ BRENT-MALDONADO

An alumna of Philadelphia’s University of the Arts with a BFA in Modern Dance, Alexandria Wailes has worked as an actor, director, choreographer and American Sign Language (ASL) consultant in television, film, music videos, web series, Broadway and Off Broadway. She toured with the Deaf West Broadway production of Big River, served as the associate choreographer for the Tony-nominated Deaf West production of Spring Awakening, was a member of the Heidi Latsky Dance Company, worked as a museum educator for the Whitney Museum of American Art, and was a teaching artist with Theatre Development Fund and with Interactive Drama and Education Awareness in the Schools Inc.

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To learn more about the Discussing Disability in Dance Book Projectvisit here!

Alexandria Wailes illustration

Image description: Alexandria is depicted from the top of her legs up in mid movement as if she is turning toward the right. Her arms are bent at the elbows. Her right finger is pointed in front of her and her left hand is flat to her side. Her hair flows behind and above her head. She is wearing a white tank top and white pants. Red and blue lines of energy zigzag around her.

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How did you get into dance and what have been some highlights in your dance history?

My first exposure to dance was when I was two and a half or three years old. After I contracted and recovered from meningitis at 13 months old, doctors gave my parents several suggestions. One of them suggested I be placed in dance classes. He said, “It will be good for her balance and physical coordination.” All around the same time, I learned dance, sign language, and obtained speech and auditory hearing training for what I had to work with. I think of the vocabulary of dance as my foundation in communication. My parents told me that once I was introduced to dance classes, that was it, I was taken with it.

For much of my childhood and early teen years, with a few gap years, I went to dance classes on weekends and after school. As a teenager, I decided to re-immerse myself. I had become more conscientious of how I sounded when I was speaking. When I got back into dance, it was very cathartic and freeing. However, I didn’t have the classical ballet body even though I was classically trained. It was an ongoing journey of trying to understand where I fit.

For college, I attended The University of the Arts, where I was the only Deaf person in their dance department. It was definitely a very interesting and fantastic experience, yet a very challenging journey because there was a real culture shock in communications in the first year. Let’s back it up a bit. While I was in my second year of high school, one of my teachers at Delaware School for the Deaf informed me and my parents about this summer intensive performing arts program at Gallaudet University. It was called the Young Scholars Program and brought in high schoolers from all over the country. The month-long intensive had a faculty that was predominantly Deaf; this is where I met my first ever professional Deaf dance instructors. Being exposed to artists who eventually became my mentors and life-long friends, I saw this opportunity to continue my interaction and education from them. I transferred over to the Model Secondary School for the Deaf (MSSD), which is on Gallaudet’s campus, for the last two years of high school. Returning to a predominantly hearing environment for college was definitely challenging as ASL was not the common language among my peers and teachers.

During those years, there were many highlights. Thanks to the strong performing arts program at MSSD, I performed in Senegal. During and after college, I performed with a group from Washington D.C. in Japan, India and Romania.

I got into choreography after college. It’s difficult auditioning and staying in dance classes when you don’t have money and are barely paying the rent, even with roommates. That’s when I started venturing into acting, directing and choreography. In 2002, I choreographed for and performed with a collective of dancers in D.C. called Pentimento for Deaf Way Too. It was called Pentimento based on the idea of an oil painting, how new layers can be added, and then stripped off revealing the backstory of the canvas. It was a short-lived company as the members were from around the country and world.

Over the course of 20 years, my work as a teaching artist, choreographer, actor, dancer and director has enriched my journey as an artist. I’ve taught workshops on contemporary dance and hip hop with high school students. I worked with the Heidi Latsky Dance company for a few years and ended up performing at the American Dance Festival in my late 30s, which goes to show that it is never too late! I worked as the associate choreographer on the Deaf West production Broadway revival of Spring Awakening. My latest collaboration as a choreographer was with Spellbound Theatre which focuses on immersive theater for babies, toddlers and their guardians.

How would you describe your current dance practice?

Full disclosure: I’m definitely not dancing as much as I used to. I haven’t been able to afford taking classes, and much of my schedule has been focused on artistic sign language consulting and directing for the stage, TV and film. Unfortunately, that means a lot of time sitting on the creative’s side working with my colleagues and with the actors. Despite not actively dancing as much, my inherent sensibility of movement has informed many of my choices made in productions that incorporate ASL. A lot of the work I do with the actors is watching and supporting them in how to be, move, and use space while signing.

I work as the director of artistic sign language. The job used to be called an ASL consultant or a sign master. It’s a combination of choreography and dialect coaching. It’s often confused with interpreting, which it is not. An interpreter facilitates communication between a non-ASL user and an ASL user. A director of artistic sign language is completely focused on the authenticity of the storytelling, the sign choices made by the director, actors and other members of the creative team, basically how language lives in and on the body. For example, if you have one Deaf character in a piece and everyone else is hearing, how do they interact? I explore those possibilities. Because sign language is very physical and spatial, my work in artistic sign language is informed by my dance history.

Back to my dance practice, I’m about to enter a new phase. I am currently an actor/dancer in The Public’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf. It’s nice to be dancing a lot and telling stories through movement, gestures and ASL!

When you tell people you are a dancer, what are the most common reactions you receive?

“Really?” That’s one. If they are hearing, they always say “How can you hear the music?” If they’re Deaf, they say, “You can’t be a dancer.” It’s just part of our history, this idea that music lives in the senses of the hearing. However, that’s not true; music and sound function on all levels through the vibrations. Musicality and rhythm are in our bodies. But if people think dance is tied to music and music is something you hear, then it doesn’t compute that I’m a dancer.

What are some ways people discuss dance with regards to disability that you feel carry problematic implications or assumptions?

The common phrase that comes up is one of inspiration or pity, something like, “How are you doing that?” said with surprise. It’s comes across as sympathetic, and when you’re on the receiving end, it feels icky. When you get that more often than not, you start to question what you are doing to begin with. That kind of reaction isn’t about how I’ve manipulated or expanded the vocabulary of dance. It’s more like, “Oh wow, good for you, you’re so beautiful.” It’s very stereotypical, instead of letting my work challenge them or engaging in critical thinking and conversations about how dance lives within the body.

I’ve always believed that dance is equal parts musicality, technique and soul. How can you communicate the soul and bring it forth into space? A lot of Western classically trained dance is strongly focused on technique. For dancers with disabilities or who use different senses, the bar is Western dance technique. That’s the expectations we must hit. So, when we dance, the reaction is often, “Ah, wow, good for you, that’s amazing, so beautiful.” I read it as ingenuine. They just see the physicality of the body and are not thinking about how the person dancing is actually expressing themselves. We’re just inspiration for them. I think that’s our biggest barrier. But we don’t have time for this inspiration narrative anymore. Let us move! We have a lot to clear so we can do our thing.

With regards to press, what advice would you give to a reporter who is unfamiliar writing about dance artists with disabilities?

Ask us first. It’s our journey, and we know the vocabulary best. Have the interview or article previewed by the company or artist before it goes to print to avoid stereotypes or insulting language. It’s also important for people covering disability in dance to open their minds and reexamine what frame they are using. The point is to look past what I would call the obvious.

Do you believe there are adequate training opportunities for dancers with disabilities? If not, what areas would you specifically like to see improved?

You’re right, the answer is no. There’s a huge lack of easily accessible studios. I’m talking on an architectural level. Some dance studios are walkup, or there’s one elevator that people in wheelchairs ride with the trash. It’s ridiculous. Of course, in an older city like New York City, things cost a lot of money to renovate, but we need to find creative solutions.

I also think dancers with disabilities need more exposure to different types of dance across the board. For example, we need more modern dance teachers in the Graham technique who are working with low vision dancers, or people in wheelchairs, or those with a missing limb. Dance is often segregated.

Dance is how you live and move in your body. How you move in space, that to me is dance. I want to challenge perceptions of how bodies can move in space.

Would you like to see disability in dance assimilated into the mainstream?

Yes and no. If you have different bodies in space, that’s fantastic; the experience of interactions, exposure, experimentation and play helps people to better understand each other just by the diversity in the room. But some spaces are better suited for common ground and expressing communication. When I dance with a company of all hearing people, for example, there’s always going to be the process of deciding to bring in an interpreter. Communication is faster with an all Deaf company, and there’s none of that “What can you hear?” or “Oh let’s use sign language as part of the choreography because it’s so beautiful” sentiment. This is my language! There’s definitely merit in having spaces where we can come together, feel safe, and create. That’s equally important. Most able-bodied hearing dance companies have never worked with a Deaf person. But we’re always the minority accommodating the majority, instead of everyone working together.

What is your preferred term for the field?

Speaking for myself, not for my community, it depends on who I’m interacting with. I give myself permission to say, “I’m a Deaf dancer,” or, “I’m a dancer who happens to be Deaf.” I use those interchangeably. A company might say it has a range of different abilities, but to me that description sounds like a hot soundbite. I just want it to be a dance company, nothing attached to it. A descriptor like that might be in the company’s mission, but I like to stay away from the pity or the inspiration porn complex. I want to avoid that language.

In your perspective, is the field improving with time?

Slowly but surely. There’s definitely more awareness out there and more visibility and opportunities. As far as shifting society’s frame, one person can’t do all that work; it takes a vast community with everyone being a part.

Any other thoughts?

It’s important for dance companies to have in their line budget funding to allow for dancers with disabilities to be a part of the conversation. Have an interpreter in the audience or auditory descriptions for people with low or no vision. Rent spaces that are accessible. It goes back to education and depends on the dance company and their aesthetic.

Alexandria Wailes, photo by Darial Sneed

Alexandria Wailes, photo by Darial Sneed

Image description: Alexandria is pictured onstage sitting on her knees wearing all white with her hair down around her shoulders. Her eyes are closed and her arms are extended in front of her bent at the elbow with her hands raised. Her fingers are open wide.

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To learn more about Alexandria’s work, visit www.alexandriawailes.com

Please consider making a donation to support the completion and publishing of the Discussing Disability in Dance Book Project!

To learn more about the Discussing Disability in Dance Book Projectvisit here!

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