Nastija Fijolič: “Judge Me as A Dancer, Not as A Wheelchair Dancer”

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

Nastija Fijolič is a Slovenian photographer, vlogger, and competitive ballroom dancer who competes in World Para Dance Sport. She was born with spinal muscular dystrophy and uses a wheelchair.

Listen to the audobook recording of Nastija Fijolič’s interview here!

To learn more about the Discussing Disability in Dance Bookvisit here!

Illustration of Nastija

Image description: Nastija is depicted seated in her wheelchair facing front. Her right arm is extended to the side, and she is looking directly right over her arm. She is wearing a gray dress with a light gray scarf in her hair. Red strokes of energy curve around her with the quotes, “They still don’t include us. We always have to push them…” and “Is this dance hall accessible? Are there toilets for wheelchair users? Where will we have room to get dressed?”

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

When I was young, I thought dance was so girly. I studied photography and filmmaking, and I ended up making a promo video for a para dance club. I said, “Man, that looks fun, I bet with a trainer I could dance a little bit.” I tried it and stayed and started to compete. It’s been eight years now. I was hooked immediately by the music, the movement, the energy of the competition, the drive. And the people became like family. When I go to competitions, I know almost everybody even though it’s like 150 dancers.

I dance ballroom, mostly Latin. I have a walking dance partner. We call this combi because it combines one person in a wheelchair and one standing dancer. We also have single, which is a dancer on their own, and duo, which is two dancers in wheelchairs. There are three basic categories, which includes Latin and freestyle. And in all that, we have class one and class two. Class one is people who are more disabled, like they have a spinal injury. Class two is people without an arm or leg. I am class one because I use an electric wheelchair in everyday life, but I use a manual wheelchair when I dance. That’s a rough description of para dance sport.

A highlight was placing second in the European Championship two or three years ago with my wheelchair dance partner, so in duo. That was quite surprising because we didn’t expect it. There were a lot of people competing in the Latin and freestyle category, and we took second place.

If I’m honest, competition is really hard for me because there are people with different kinds of disabilities in the competition. I have spinal muscular dystrophy, which means my muscles are not strong enough to push myself really fast or do the same move 10 times equally. I can do it maybe three times, but I compete with people who don’t have that kind of disability. They might have a spine injury from the waist down, but they have normal hands. I go, do my best, and see what happens. That’s why second place was surprising, because I didn’t expect it.

How would you describe your current dance practice?

Before the pandemic, we had group lessons two times per week for everyone in the dance club. It was to improve the movement and to physically get stronger and more prepared. When I dance, I mostly use my upper body, so I have to get physiotherapy one or two times a week for my legs and my spine. And then, from time to time, my partner and I work with a trainer to improve the choreography and make some movements better. Being physical four to five times a week is the maximum for me. I cannot do more because my muscles need time to rest. Two or three days before a competition, I do not train. It took me like three years to figure that out. We used to train extra before a competition and then I wouldn’t be able to move my arms. I decided maybe I needed to rest beforehand, and it was better.

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

People still don’t accept para dancing as a sport. Have you seen the dancers in our competition? They’re really good. They do stuff that dancers in standing competitions do. I think people will eventually start to see it as a sport, but there’s not that mindset yet. When people see a dancer in an electric wheelchair, they’re like, “Oh, he or she is dancing, let’s clap.” Can I just punch those people in the face? That dancer in the wheelchair dances as much as he or she can. You have to be an artist to understand that. It’s the same with judges in competitions. They put me in fifth place because I’m not fast. I feel the music just as much as the person in third place. Para sport will never be fair because it’s not two people competing with the same injury or disability. But for the people who think para dance is not even a sport, I hope they figure it out.

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

When people say, “You’re so inspirational,” I’m like, “Really? I feel sorry for you if I am an inspiration for you.” When I started dancing, I felt like everybody clapped for me because I’m in a wheelchair. I wondered: Did they see my dancing, or did they just see my wheelchair? That’s why I love to compete in para dance even though I know I will not win because I know they will judge me as a dancer, not as a wheelchair dancer.

The biggest “come on” moment is when I see the title of an article like, “She’s in a wheelchair, but she’s still dancing.” Maybe they could write, “She’s dancing, and she’s in a wheelchair,” or just, “She’s dancing.” I work in media, so I know the title has to be something that people will click and read. I get it. But see the person, not the thing they move with.

Another problem is we have these competitions all over the world, but we travel to a hotel that has two rooms that are accessible, and we have 100 people in wheelchairs. In the bathtub or shower there is a step. I’m like, “Shit, what now?” Some people in wheelchairs can move themselves with their arms, but I can’t. We somehow manage. Paula is one of the dancers who always gets the accessible room. I ask her if I can shower in her room because the shower is accessible. That’s what I love about our competitions: We can help each other and still be competitive.

In Slovenia we don’t have funding, and my dance wheelchair is the first thing I need to dance. I can still dance without my fake eyelashes, but I cannot dance without my wheels. In the Netherlands, if you compete in a sport for the country, you get new equipment every three years, like a new wheelchair or new skateboard. I bought my manual wheelchair and that’s it for life. And it was not cheap.

Those are some of the biggest problems in para dance sport, but mostly, I would really love to see all the people clap for me because of my dancing, not because of my disability.

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

No, of course not. In my country we have one dance club that teaches para dance sport. Some people would say dance is dance so every club should teach para dance sport, but there are specific things that standing dancers don’t understand, like how to turn your wheelchair or how to use your body to make a roll. I live close enough to the club in Ljubljana that it’s not a problem, but for people who live two hours from here, they will not drive that far every other day to train.

The other thing is studios are not accessible. Where we train is only half accessible; I cannot go to the toilet, for example, because it’s too small. In Slovenia I haven’t found any studio that is totally accessible. This is another reason why we cannot train everywhere.

For three or four years now, para dance has been included in national competitions, but in January there was a competition and we were not invited. Our trainer said, “What’s the problem? We are part of your dancing community and a national sport. Why were we not included?” They said, “In the rules it’s written that only athletes can dance.” Our trainer was like, “Are you joking? They’re para athletes, so therefore they can compete.” They still don’t include us. We always have to push them. We always have to say, “Is this dance hall accessible? Are there toilets for wheelchair users? Where will we have room to get dressed?”

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

We would love to be included. We would love for standing people to know we exist and dance the same and train. This is getting better every year because from time to time, our coach and the standing coach meet, and they make one big training with all the standing dancers and para dancers together. We all dance to the same music on the same floor at the same time.

But I still think it has to be separated because we are rolling, and they are walking. These are two very different things. I would prefer to separate into disabilities even further because if I know a dancer’s disability, I can tell a lot about how they will move best. If I see a person with cerebral palsy, I know they cannot make gentle moves. They will have spasms, so I cannot expect them to be really smooth. That’s why I think it’s important to know what disabilities people have.

Like I said earlier, in competitions we have class one and class two. Before every competition, there are four or five judges who ask us to put our hands in the air or do rotations, and they give us points. In the end, how many points you get determines which class you get put into. They put me in class two three times because I can put my arms up, but I cannot do it fast. They are like, “Can you do it, or can’t you?” If I say I cannot do it, and they see me do it on the dance floor, I will be suspended. Eventually, they understood and put me in class one.

What is your preferred term for the field?

Five years ago it was still “wheelchair dance sport,” but now it’s “para dance sport.” I think “para” is the best word. It sounds more professional. I would like to avoid “disability,” “handicapped,” or “wheelchair” to describe our dance.

It would be awesome if there was just “ballroom dancing,” but para dance is different than walking so it must be called something else. We did this project with Toyota a few years ago and they had this quote: “Make your disability ability.” I was like, yeah! Though I generally avoid words like “disability” because it has the association of pity.

In your perspective, is the field improving with time?

Of course it is. If it’s not getting better, then why are we doing it? Every year more people are included. More people know about our club or para dancing in general. Slowly we are getting there. With the coronavirus, I think it went five steps back, but it will get better. It has to.

 Nastija in a purple dress and her partner in a black suit in competition

Nastija Fijolič, Photo courtesy the artist.
Image description: Nastija, in her wheelchair and in a purple dress, and her partner, standing and in a black suit, dance with an open embrace in competition. Another couple dances behind them and judges watch in the background.

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

This interview was conducted in February 2021.

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