BY VANESSA CRUZ
Editorial Note: For the past nine years, Stance on Dance has asked a variety of dance artists at different points in their careers what “making it” means to them. Please join us in looking at what “making it” means as a dancer, artist, and human.
When I began my dance career, I had this belief that if I worked hard enough, I could join any dance company, train in any dance school, and make it just like any nondisabled artist. I wasn’t prepared for the journey, for the realization of how deeply ableist the dance world is. My perception of making it in the dance world has been predominately associated with surviving, especially as a Mexican American disabled woman. I’ve survived in terms of making it through systemic racism and ableism in academia, making it through auditions, making it through an audition-based dance program at my past university, and now navigating the dance world to find opportunities to expand my career as a disabled artist.
I realized that no matter how prepared I was, how much preplanning choreographic work, how much I trained my disabled body in dance technique, I would still be seen as not enough. Not enough to be in choreographic works, in a BFA program, or to gain access to opportunities to show my choreographic works. This all stems from the lack of understanding of disability art and our disability community. Society has shaped disability throughout history through an inspirational-porn lens and as a community to be pitied on. This perverse idea holds disabled artists back from being able to make it in the dance world/industry.
While there will be folxs reading this and thinking that dance is supposed to be a highly competitive field, the rate of rejections for us disabled artists, particularly in spaces that are predominately for nondisabled artists, is high. Nondisabled folxs who expect disabled artists to only seek out spaces that are only created for disabled artists is ableist. That belief system continues to uphold segregation and ableism in the dance world and doesn’t hold these spaces accountable to be equitable and accessible for the disability community. Not only that, but the disabled spaces that do exist are often limited and don’t have the capacity to support all disabled artists out there. Disabled artists should have unlimited options to craft their dance career, to get grants, to showcase their artistic work, to be accepted in any dance training facility, to choose any dance company to audition for and be in, and so much more.
Upon experiencing all of this in real time, I had to shift my focus to literally making it through these experiences and changing these systems, while at the same time focusing on my own artistic goals. It should never be expected from a marginalized person and/or community to change these kinds of oppressive systems. I chose to dive into this activism work because I knew if I left these spaces, it would be the same experience for the next disabled artist trying to focus on their goals. I initiated outstanding changes at my university through the guidance of disability justice along with the fantastic student organization CSULB Affinity AIDE (Advocates for Inclusion and Dancer Equity) where I was the Disabled Student Affairs Chair.
Within all the important and essential activism work I have done and will continue to do, I have managed to find joy in the small moments and achievements. It has been hard at times because rejection hurts. It hurts realizing that my disabled body could potentially be used against me as an excuse not to be granted opportunities in nondisabled spaces. This has taken me to dark places mentally. But being able to reshape what it means to make it has allowed me to find innovation and creativity in my work. And I have to thank my disabled body and my disabled experiences because it has equipped me to be innovative and a problem solver.
Whenever I finish dance classes, finish performances, experience great rehearsals with other dancers, finish my choreographic work, figure out new ways to do a pirouette, or have brilliant ideas, I celebrate those moments. That’s when I know I have made it. I choose to live in the present when my anxiety isn’t poking at me, which is why those small moments make it all worth it.
When I successfully transferred to California State University Long Beach, I remember feeling excited but also terrified that this opportunity was going to be taken away from me. I remember that feeling and I carry that with me whenever I find myself confronting ableism, when I notice I am the only visibly disabled person in the audition room or dance class, and/or any space that wasn’t built for disabled artists. When that happens, I think “I am here as a radical act and my fears will no longer be fears for future generations; I vow to dance my heart out because I am honoring myself, my ancestors, and future generations.”
I envision a future where disabled dancers are hired in all the dance companies that exist, where disabled choreographers are hired at various dance companies, where disabled dancers get dance training in any school they desire. I envision equity where disabled people are not forgotten. Until then, I celebrate the moments that will get us there.
Vanessa Hernández Cruz (she, her, hers) is an emerging Chicana disabled dancer, choreographer, filmmaker, artist, poet, and activist. She was born and raised in Los Angeles, California. She received her Associates Degree in Dance from Santa Monica College and recently graduated from California State University Long Beach with her Bachelor of Arts in Dance Science. Her dance films Static Void Distortion and Nycto-Eternity were selected to be screened for the Some Dance Screen Fest happening in October 2021. Her latest dance film DNA: Disability Not Ability was selected for Opulent Mobility’s 2021 Exhibition that will be screened in October 2021. DNA was also selected by IKOUII and was exhibited in June through August 2021 for their virtual art show Without Labels and won the Honorable Mention award. In 2020, her dance film Nycto-Eternity won The Dance Cinema Award from Frostbite International Film Festival and was recently screened for The Midnight Film Festival in New York. In 2018, Vanessa won first place in the Global Citizenship Research Symposium: Dance & Disability in Santa Monica College for her dance film Grey City. Vanessa’s choreographic work has received the award for Cultural Diplomacy for Innovation in Choreography from Ballet Beyond Borders in 2019. Her lifetime aspirations are to continue to perform, choreograph, create, and to continue to pave an easier path for future disabled artists through her activism.