Judith Smith: “Making Physically Integrated Work Part of The Dance Canon”

BY EMMALY WIEDERHOLT; ILLUSTRATIONS BY LIZ BRENT-MALDONADO

Judith Smith, founding member and artistic director emerita of AXIS Dance Company, is a driving force in physically integrated dance. She helped launch AXIS in 1987 and grew the company to be a leading physically integrated dance ensemble. Under Judith’s artistic direction from 1997 to 2017, AXIS commissioned more than 35 works from choreographers and composers nationwide, toured to more than 100 cities, appeared twice on FOX TV’S So You Think You Can Dance, and developed extensive education/outreach programs. In 2016, her advocacy led to the first National Convening on the Future of Physically Integrated Dance in the US.

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

Judith Smith illustration

Image description: Judith is depicted in a blue powerchair that is oriented toward the right lower diagonal of the frame. She is leaning over the right side of the chair. One arm is extended above her head and the other is extended toward the ground. She is wearing a white tank top and pants. She looks directly front as red lines of energy swirl around her with the quote, “I don’t think the disability can be separated from the dance & I don’t want it to be.”

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

I moved from Colorado to Berkeley in 1983, five years into my disability, and met an attendant who was also an improviser. We started doing improvisational movement, and it changed my life.

When I became disabled, I had been a champion equestrian. Everything I did was body focused. After I got hurt, I felt alienated from myself and from society. I spent a lot of time sitting still not knowing what to do in my body. When I started doing improvisational movement, it gave me an avenue to reconnect with being physical and to find ways to move that were enjoyable and exploratory. For me, it had direct implications on my quality of life in terms of gaining independence, strength, balance, coordination, and confidence.

From there, I ended up in a self-defense class for women with disabilities in Oakland. I met another student in the class who was not disabled, Thais Mazur, and who was a martial arts and dance practitioner. She asked if I wanted to be in a dance piece for Dance Brigade’s Furious Feet Festival for Social Change. The closest I’d ever gotten to dance was dressage on horses, but I was intrigued enough to say yes. I got hooked. I knew we were doing something that hadn’t been done. There was a fair amount of contact improvisation for people with and without disabilities, but we didn’t know anybody setting choreography. This was 1987. It was exciting to move in different ways by myself and with other people. Having non-disabled partners opened new possibilities.

We needed a name for our group, and we wanted something that didn’t directly say “wheelchair,” though we wanted to acknowledge it. We came up with the name “Axis,” though it went through a lot of iterations over the years before it became AXIS Dance Company. The axis of a wheel ended up being a beautiful metaphor.

After that first performance, the disabled community got interested in what we were doing, and as a result we were asked to make pieces for various disability events. Then the dance community became interested. We kept getting offers to make work. At the same time, people wanted to learn about what we were doing, so we started our education program with a monthly jam right out the gate.

A lot happened between how things started and when I retired. By the end, I stopped performing in new work because I’d injured my shoulder and couldn’t do 80-hour weeks anymore. Besides being in the studio 20 to 30 hours a week, I still had 50 to 60 hours a week of admin to do. I knew I wanted the company to continue and grow, so I chose to focus on the administrative work. I think I was successful in developing great programs, and I managed to raise money and find foundational support, but it exhausted me, so I made the decision a few years ago to retire.

How would you describe your current dance practice?

I do improvisational movement on my own. It’s a meditation practice. I also do vigorous aerobic movement because I like to work out. I keep thinking I’m going to get back to dance jams, but I haven’t yet. In the summer of 2019, I was in a dance film that Carina Ho directed and choreographed. That was a lot of fun. It featured five of us who use power chairs.

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

Laughing is one. Another reaction is a blank stare, like they’re not able to register my meaning. I think the funniest is, “Oh you can walk?” People find it very difficult to put dance and the picture of someone as disabled as I am together. It’s a paradox to most people.

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

We spent the first 10 years trying to convince funders, critics, and presenters that we were doing dance, not therapy. Especially early on, a lot of the writing about us was along the lines of, “Isn’t it wonderful what these people are doing?” They would write about the disability and not focus on the work.

That being said, a lot of our early work was directly about disability. The company went through an implosion 10 years in. One of the things that triggered it was a poor review about a performance we did in Minneapolis in 1995. This was also the first time I thought we got a serious review, and I agreed with it. The reviewer said the dancers were strong, but the choreography was sophomore. Thais was not happy about that. I wanted to dissect the review as a company and figure out how to move the artistic work forward, and that’s what led to the implosion.

At that point, I ended up taking the responsibility of making sure AXIS continued. A big part of what those of us who remained wanted was to stop doing pieces directly about disability. I was one of the people who wanted to start commissioning other choreographers to work with us. I was bored stiff of what we were coming up with. When you’re disabled, you don’t have the opportunity to drop into any dance class. I felt that the way to get new inspiration was to commission choreographers. That’s when the writing about us changed.

The first repertoire I commissioned was Bill T. Jones, Joe Goode, Joanna Haigood, and Sonya Delwaide. Reviewers had a context within which to review the work because they knew those choreographers’ other works. It gave them a different lens.

I started AXIS’ commissioning program out of selfishness. I wanted new motivation and I wanted to be pushed. It ended up being a successful strategy on all levels. People took us seriously. It gave us a way into funders we didn’t have before because people were interested to see what well-known choreographers would do with us. On the inside, it was so invigorating to be in the studio with different choreographers. And the writing about us reflected all that.

What happens for a lot of people when they first see this work is that it is hard for them not to focus on the disability. I don’t think the disability can be separated from the dance, and I don’t want it to be. But what I would suggest for someone getting into writing about integrated/inclusive dance is to educate themselves: Are you writing from the lens of amazement that a disabled person can get out of bed, or are you writing from a lens of evaluating the technique and choreography?

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

No, there are not. In 2014, the managing director that AXIS brought in asked what I hadn’t done that I wanted to do. I responded that the field needs to be organized.

Jeremy Alliger, founder of Dance Umbrella, was a huge part of developing integrated dance in the US. In 1996, he approached AXIS about doing a festival, which Thais and I helped plan and curate with Jeremy. The first International Festival of Wheelchair Dance brought together 14 companies from around the country and world in 1997. But in 2014 the field hadn’t gotten together since then.

I wanted to do a national convening that focused on where the field was and where it needed to be. I especially wanted to compare it to what was happening in the UK and Europe. I felt like we were behind, particularly in comparison to the UK.

We did a national convening in New York City in 2016. I had planned on 25 people attending, but we ended up with more than 50 and a nice cross section of the field, from choreographers to dance artists, funders, presenters, dance writers, and artistic directors. It also represented three generations of integrated dance. It was a pivotal moment. What was exciting about the national convening was that Dance/USA was our media partner. There is now a Dance/USA Deaf & Disability Affinity Group, which I co-chair.

The national convening was followed by six regional convenings around the country in 2016. I wanted to address why the artistic quality of our field was not where it needed to be after 30 years and what we could do about it. We came up with needing training and opportunities for disabled dancers and choreographers.

Out of that, AXIS created the AXIS Artistic Advancement Platform. It’s one of the things I’m most proud of. The platform addresses opportunities to train teachers, dancers, and choreographers at all entry points, from kids through the university level. It’s an ambitious program. We were able to get major funding from Mellon, Ford, and Duke. It ignited this drive to organize and move the field forward.

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

There are already disabled dancers who are graduating with dance degrees, like Julie Crothers, Lani Dickinson, and Stephanie Bastos, but they are all amputees. The more disabled you are, the harder it is to integrate. It’s not that it was easy for Julie, Stephanie, and Lani; they definitely worked harder than others to be taken seriously. But for someone in a wheelchair, it’s even harder. I know fewer wheelchair users who have gotten dance degrees, and the ones I do know were able to because someone on faculty got behind them.

It’s important to have companies like Alice Sheppard’s Kinetic Light that are focused just on disabled artists. I personally was more excited by integrated work than I would have been only working with other disabled artists, but both are important and greatly inform each other.

What is your preferred term for the field?

I don’t like “mixed abilities” because it infers that some of the dancers are good and some suck. We stopped using that term years ago. I like “inclusive dance.” “Physically integrated dance” is what I used with AXIS because it best described what we were doing. In the performance company, we didn’t have developmentally disabled dancers.

Until the ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act], nobody was asking about disability on grant applications. I would take a red pen and write “disabled” underneath the other demographic information, which was usually asking about gender and race. It took the passing of the ADA for disability to even get on grant proposals.

In your perspective, is the field improving with time?

Well yeah, but in 2014, 30 years in, I was still disappointed in the level of artistry and opportunities available. Since 2016, the work Dance/NYC has done and the national and regional convenings AXIS undertook have been pivotal. The opportunities have increased exponentially as a result.

Any other thoughts?

There are things I wanted to accomplish that I didn’t, but AXIS undertook a huge task in 1998 when we started commissioning work by contemporary choreographers and making physically integrated work part of the dance canon. I feel great we were able to accomplish that.

Judith Smith and Janet Das, photo by Andrea Basile

Judith Smith and Janet Das in Kate Weare’s Forgone, Photo by Andrea Basile

Image description: Judy is pictured from the knees up seated in a wheelchair facing front. Her right arm and gaze are extended to the side. A standing dancer, Janet, leans over her arm and grasps Judy’s extended elbow. The background is black.

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Learn more about AXIS by visiting www.axisdance.org.

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

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