Christelle Dreyer: “We Have to Prove We Can Move”

BY SILVA LAUKKANEN; EDITED BY EMMALY WIEDERHOLT; ILLUSTRATION BY LIZ BRENT-MALDONADO

Christelle Dreyer is a dancer and graphic designer from Cape Town, South Africa, who participates in dance styles varying from contemporary to ballroom and Latin dance. Through Remix Dance Project, a physically integrated dance company in Cape Town, Christelle has taught dance to schoolchildren. In 2014, she performed as part of the UNI Global Union Women’s Conference. In 2017, she received the Cultural Affairs Award from the Western Cape Government for Contribution by Person with Disability to The Arts.

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

Illustration of Christelle Dreyer

Image description: Christelle is depicted sitting with her legs tucked under her. She is facing the back left corner of the frame. She is leaning back so far we can see her face. Her eyes appear closed and her hands delicately reach above her. She is wearing a gray outfit with red markings. Red and blue lines of energy swirl around her along with the quotes, “Words don’t diminish me in any way.”

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

I got into dance while I was in high school. Dance companies would come to my school and introduce the students to different styles. At first, I felt forced to do it. Back then, we were supposed to choose something to do, whether it was chess or sports or an art, but I’m still dancing all these years later.

A highlight was teaching schoolchildren as part of Remix Dance Project with Nicola Elliott and Malcolm Black. We did a collaboration with kids in the normal schools and kids in the disabled schools. We met with them once a week. At first, the kids were so scared of each other. The kids from the normal school were afraid to touch the disabled kids. Same on the other side; they really didn’t interact and just stuck to their own groups. What we would do is put them in a circle, one disabled kid and one normal kid side by side. Spacing them like that, it forced them to interact. Then we started going around doing introductions and games. By the last two sessions, we couldn’t even get them to focus because they were friends. They wanted to have sleepovers. We did this process at three or four schools at a time; Monday we would be at one school, then Tuesday at the next school. At the end of the term, we had a show where each school would perform. Then me and an able-bodied person would do a duet to show the kids some moves. They got to experience performing on a real stage with lights and proper sound, and parents and teachers could come watch. We tried to do as many schools as possible. It was so successful and so cool to see.

About five years ago, I attended AXIS Dance Company’s summer intensive. I learned that my dance technique as a disabled person isn’t too bad. I was expecting to be the worst person in the room from not having the guidance I need.

In South Africa, 90 percent of the time I am the only person with a wheelchair in dance classes. If it is an advanced contemporary class, people are leaping and going fast. I have to keep up or get out of the way. If I don’t, the other dancers get irritated. I am forced to pick up the combinations without pause and translate choreography that isn’t meant for a wheelchair user. There is no time for me to say, “Wait, I have to figure out my wheels, the counts, and the spacing.” Everything is at the same time, and there isn’t someone to teach me how to translate movement because a lot of the time the teacher isn’t trained to teach disabled people. I’m in the class but not really in the class because they don’t know what to do with me.

In 2019, I was part of the Disability Inclusion Lab at UCLA. I learned so much. In South Africa, I haven’t had that much exposure to disability dance. Like ballet or hip hop, it is a genre. We looked at what it would be defined as or what it would look like; how you would use wheelchairs or crutches to move around the space, for example. We also looked at the concept of disability culture. It was interesting to hear different people’s views. The other participants were fascinated that I was from South Africa. To them, it is this magical land with lions, but I live in a normal city. However, the advancement of disability culture is not the same back home. They couldn’t understand that there are certain things they expect and take for granted. The idea of basic accessibility in a building or in society is not happening in South Africa. They would say to me, “Oh, but you are so complacent.” I am not complacent. They are living with actual rights. The things they have access to in their everyday communities are luxuries I don’t have at home. I am not complacent; there was just so much more access than I was used to.

How would you describe your current dance practice?

Currently, I’m not with a company or any organization. I’m solo. I take any dance classes I can find – contemporary, contact improv, basically anything that can keep me fit until I find my next project. However, there are no classes that might help me as a disabled dancer use my wheelchair better. I figure it out for myself. If the choreography includes counts, I have to combine two counts into one, because I have to push my chair at the same time as doing the movement. So I’m using both the teacher’s counts and my own counts. It’s very difficult.

In general, I try to always keep myself immersed in movement. I’m freelancing, but I also started school recently; I’m doing my master’s in graphic design, so my time is split. I stopped dancing for a while because, to be honest, dancing doesn’t really pay the bills. But it wasn’t working; I had to start dancing again. I don’t think I’ll stop dancing unless my body tells me it doesn’t want to dance. I don’t know what form that will always take though.

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

Some people are confused, like, “What do you mean?” Other people say, “Oh, that’s nice. It must keep you busy,” like dance is a hobby that keeps me occupied because I’m disabled. People also wonder how I dance.

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

There are only a handful of us dancers with disabilities here in South Africa, so we must fight our way into what is known as the mainstream. We have to prove we actually can move. People don’t see disabled dancers as real dancers who are credible, so when the press describes us, they don’t take us as seriously as – I don’t know what to call it… normal? other? – dancers. Even in the descriptions of our shows, you can tell they don’t consider us at the same level. A review might say, “The disabled dancers are integrated with the other dancers.” That language puts us in a box. Can’t you just say, “the dancers” and leave out “integrated” or “disabled” in front of the word “dance”? Can’t we just be a dance company?

Reviewers always make what I do a bigger deal than it needs to be. They’ll make a big deal about if I lift my leg, writing, “And she pointed her toes.” But all the other dancers onstage were pointing their toes as well. I’m not a novelty act. I want people to see me on par with the other dancers. Obviously, if I am a better dancer, then say that. But don’t say it’s amazing that I can lift my arm because I’m disabled.

I also have problems with auditions. The announcement will say it’s an open audition but, when I show up, they look at me like, “Why are you here?” It’s not really an open audition. I’ve noticed though that audition announcements are starting to get more specific, like with height requirements. It makes it harder for me to find auditions.

Disabled people are equal to anyone else. We’re not separate. The quality of our work should not be based on the disability, but on our actual skills as dancers. I want for people to see me as a dancer, and that I have the necessary ability and skill to be a dancer. I want to be seen as a professional in the field, not someone who is trying to be a dancer.

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

I think teachers really do try to learn and adapt for their disabled students. Not all my experiences are negative. If my initial experiences in the classroom were negative, I wouldn’t still be dancing. I think I’ve been lucky in that way, that I’ve had some teachers who could actually teach me.

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

Most definitely. People in Cape Town say they want disability rights, accessibility, inclusion, integration, all those fancy words. They can make laws about it, and hold meetings and workshops, but I think when we actually do it, that’s when it happens. You have to actually go to the schools and encourage the kids to integrate. And disabled people need to be onstage for other people to see. Shows shouldn’t necessarily be about being disabled, just include disabled people in performances, on TV, or in movies.

As far as dance, I want to see disability dance as its own genre, but I also want to see it integrated. When I am forced to be in the same space as everybody else, it gives my technique strength. Sometimes that is exactly what is needed to grow as a dancer, to be forced to push our limits, to be forced to keep up with the other dancers.

That being said, I always find it so entertaining when I’m in a dance classes and the teacher says to stand up straight. I just start laughing because my spine can’t be straight. I can be “up,” but my spine isn’t straight.

What is your preferred term for the field?

I think they normally say integrated, but since there are so few of us dancing with disabilities in South Africa, we all just say what we feel. Terms or words have never been that important to me. Whether people call me disabled or crippled, or call it integrated dance or inclusive dance, I don’t mind. Words don’t diminish me in any way. However, I know there are other people who get offended by certain terminologies. As important as inclusion is, it’s not as important to choose a word as it is to get on with the process.

It should just be called “dancing.” Especially with academic people, they often try to overanalyze things. I don’t understand why it needs to be labeled as “disabled” or “non-disabled.”

In your perspective, is the field improving with time?

In South Africa, it is happening so small you almost can’t see it, but it is happening. People like me are making it happen. I impose myself, whether other dancers want me in the space or not. I sometimes go to a studio and I can see they don’t really want me there, but at least they are polite. Three weeks later, they get used to me and then they start to like me.

Photo of Christelle Dreyer

Christelle Dreyer; photo courtesy the artist

Image description: Christelle is pictured leaning back over a wheelchair, her legs in a split above her. Her hair is hanging to the floor and she is staring upside down into the camera with intensity. The wheelchair is on a black floor with stark stage lighting from the right. She is wearing a leotard and pants.

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

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