The Urgency of Accessibility in Higher Education Dance Training

BY BRADFORD CHIN

Note: This article was first published in Stance on Dance’s spring/summer 2024 print issue. To learn more, visit stanceondance.com/print-publication.

The conversations about accessibility in higher education dance programs, born from the swift onset of the pandemic lockdown, seem to have faded as quickly as they began. Some of these ground level conversations resulted in great first moves toward increased disability awareness and accessibility measures for both students and audience members. Unfortunately, except for small pockets where this work was already in motion, the disability work in higher education dance training has largely ended there: great first moves.

My other disabled colleagues and I continue to receive the same defensive reaction when engaging in access work: “We don’t have any disabled students.” This excuse is nearly identical to the decades-long excuse for not engaging in anti-racism work: “We don’t have any students of color.” At best, this excuse demonstrates a limited understanding of disability that extends only to “perceptible” disabilities* (e.g. mobility devices or neurodivergence that is not “masked”), which erases those with “less perceptible” disabilities, the majority of disabled folks. This excuse communicates an absolution of responsibility and a deprioritization and invisibilization of disabled and other marginalized folks.

Disabled dancers are very much present, and as I mentioned, some great first moves have taken place toward greater accessibility in our collegiate dance programs. Let us celebrate those first moves, examine their shortcomings, and continue this urgently needed work.

Image Description: A photo of Vanessa on stage with her walker named Pluto. She is wearing all black and has a white mesh head piece that looks like an abstract Venus fly trap. Her walker has a costume on that is a white fabric looped around the purple metal parts of her walker. In the background, there are six dancers in a wide stance leaning back.

Vanessa Hernández Cruz and CSULB Dance students in Tales 11.20.19 (2019) by Marjani Forté-Saunders, guest artist, California State University, Long Beach. Costuming by Kelsey Vidic; photography by Gregory R.R. Crosby. Photo courtesy of Vanessa Hernández Cruz. Image Description: A photo of Vanessa on stage with her walker named Pluto. She is wearing all black and has a white mesh head piece that looks like an abstract Venus fly trap. Her walker has a costume on that is a white fabric looped around the purple metal parts of her walker. In the background, there are six dancers in a wide stance leaning back.

Disabled Dancers Seek Dance Training

In the past half decade or so, more and more openly disabled-identifying dancers continue to dance through US collegiate dance programs. Some of these disabled dancers have “perceptible” disabilities, and more dancers have begun claiming their disability identity around disabilities that are sometimes “less perceptible.”

Just like the increased enrollment of dancers of color in collegiate dance programs, the increase and heightened visibility of disabled dance students is a very good thing and adds to the increased diversity of the field. However, diversity by itself is neither inclusion nor equity. Some disabled dance students have shared their experiences of being prevented from enrolling in various movement technique courses due to inadequate accessibility measures, feeling ignored and invisibilized by instructors in their classes, and needing to take drastic measures such as peer-supported petitions and interventions to have their disability-related needs taken seriously by faculty members.

Relatedly, some disabled dance students also share that they perceive their quality of dance training to be less than that of their non-disabled peers. The necessity of constant self-advocacy, especially in environments that may not be receptive to accounts of non-normative experiences, is an expenditure that diverts already-limited capacity from the strain of interpreting multisensory input, investigating new movement pathways, and forging new body-mind connections.

Additionally, some disabled dance students share that their instructors feel less invested in them than their non-disabled peers. Reasons include inadequate knowledge to work with them and their specific disabilities, or the mistaken and condescending belief that a professional dance career is not viable for them because of their disability. Whether conscious or not, these reasons reflect an internalized ableism that dehumanizes those around us, whether disabled or not.

Image Description: Orli supports Zera, who is hanging upside down from Orli's wheelchair, legs up and dangling in the air. Martin and Ronan tilt Orli on opposite sides. Behind them is a dark blue backdrop.

Orli Resnik, Martin Quintana, Ronan Helvey, and Zera Adame in Rituals, Routines, and Rain (2023) by Martin Quintana in collaboration with Orli Resnik, undergraduate students, University of New Mexico. Photo courtesy of Martin Quintana. Image Description: Orli supports Zera, who is hanging upside down from Orli’s wheelchair, legs up and dangling in the air. Martin and Ronan tilt Orli on opposite sides. Behind them is a dark blue backdrop.

Increasing Accessibility in Community Interactions

In 2022, I was brought on as the inaugural concert accessibility coordinator for a leading US collegiate dance program at a large public university. This initiative continued the years-long accessibility work done by one of my disabled colleagues while they were a student there. My primary responsibility was training and supervising undergraduate dance students in the creation of audio description tracks toward increased audience accessibility for their mainstage concert productions. To my and other disabled colleagues’ knowledge, this initiative was unparalleled in US collegiate dance programs — an exciting win!

My unpaid work lasted one school year before it was quietly and unceremoniously discontinued. Although extremely disappointing, I was admittedly a little relieved to be relieved of this responsibility. My sense was that the students were more interested in fulfilling their dance production requirement than investing in the pursuit of this accessibility work.

Put another way, it felt like the students did not understand the urgent need for access work in the context of disability and ableism. How could they when my only interactions with them were a two-hour introductory workshop on disability and audio description followed by script feedback exchanges through email?

The exhausted pessimist in me is inclined to consider this undertaking a failure. As a disabled educator and activist, I do not feel I impacted the students in any lasting manner. I also do not know who in the disabled community this access work reached, if any. But my inner facilitator holds space for myself by framing this short-lived work as a prototype. This experience allowed me to workshop ideas and modifications for a semester-long audio description course I had imagined for a university setting.

A glimmer of hope is found at Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts, Department of Dance. Its undergraduate course offerings include Adaptive Movement through Dance, which focuses on working with “differently abled individuals who require adaptive movement and [providing] appropriate movement practices.” MGSA also houses the Integrated Dance Collaboratory, which produces “Choreo Lab” choreographic incubators for disabled dance artists, most recently for Madeline Maxine Gorman in January 2024.

This pioneering disability-focused progress, especially at Rutgers, is largely unprecedented and cause for celebration, a jumping board for continued work. However, a 10-hour production unit, single pedagogy course, or choreographic incubator not tied to the curriculum can be viewed as equivalent to mere master class or elective offerings, ultimately still communicating disability as tangential. And yes, it is hauntingly similar to the historical trajectory of race-oriented work and marginalized dance forms in our collegiate programs. Including disabled people is largely treated as decorative — perhaps nice to have, but unnecessary and extra.

Image Description: On a darkened stage, eight dancers bottleneck in a thin pathway of light that leads to a dim, fiery red portal blocked by a chain link fence. Six of the dancers grasp at each other in counterbalances while Vanessa collapses over her rollator walker with David slowly pacing around her. Outside the lit pathway, another dancer stands with her foot on the motionless body of a tenth dancer laying at her feet. All of the dancers wear shapeless brown coverings that obscure their bodies and their colorful, patterned tunics.

University of California, Irvine students and guest artists in The world was ending, so they danced, and they were free (2023), directed by Bradford Chin. Lighting design by Jimmy Balistreri; costume design by Kaylynn Sutton; set design by Bradford Chin and Bill Kingsbury. Photo courtesy of Bradford Chin. Image Description: On a darkened stage, eight dancers bottleneck in a thin pathway of light that leads to a dim, fiery red portal blocked by a chain link fence. Six of the dancers grasp at each other in counterbalances while Vanessa collapses over her rollator walker with David slowly pacing around her. Outside the lit pathway, another dancer stands with her foot on the motionless body of a tenth dancer laying at her feet. All of the dancers wear shapeless brown coverings that obscure their bodies and their colorful, patterned tunics.

Humanizing Paradigmatic Shifts for Radical Change

There is a lot of work to do toward realizing far greater numbers of disabled dancers in our spaces, but sometimes I feel that focusing only on whether disabled dancers are present or absent from a space is merely focusing on a symptom rather than a root cause. Disabled dancers are already here and have always been here. To me, the deeper issue is whether the space is safe to disclose and operate openly with a disability identity.

During the 2022-2023 cycle on the academic job market, I was the only one masked at all my several final round campus visits. Every time I entered a space with my mask, I felt like the energy shifted such that I did not feel safe to disclose my disability identity. I later learned that for one particular visit, the students were very interested in DEI (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion) but did not feel that disability-centered work counted as DEI. How am I — or any disabled person — supposed to operate in an environment where my marginalization and humanity are not recognized?

The students’ unfortunately common sentiment positions disability as an individual condition, rather than an opportunity for community care or a product of how our structures and practices are constructed. Recall that sometimes, instructors may not view a professional dance career as viable for a student based on their disability. As further illustration, when a trained disabled dancer auditioned for a dance major program, the internal faculty deliberation included whether the disabled dancer could complete the program’s technique requirements. These mistaken beliefs communicate that the issue is disabled students’ “inability” to participate, but the actual barrier is the instructor’s inability to include them.

Institutions of higher education are heralded as sites of learning and innovation. Our collegiate dance programs are tasked with preparing their students in response to the current state of the field, but they also have the power and responsibility to envision a different future for the next generation of arts workers. To maintain the status quo because “that’s the way it is” is a cop-out that fails all our students, renders our programs the opposite of cutting-edge, and cheapens our art form; dance may as well be dead with that uncreative attitude.

A slightly better-but-still-not-good scenario is when an instructor or program gives the excuse that they are not properly trained to work with a student and their disability. On the surface, this excuse can be a recognition of limitation or an attempt to mitigate potential harm. However, the reality is that this response is rarely followed by actions toward further education and training. In essence, rather than a hard “no,” the disabled student is strung along and left in limbo, waiting indefinitely. As disabled dance artist and activist Vanessa Hernández Cruz puts it, “We [disabled folks] don’t have time to wait.” Cruz is correct; disabled folks experience higher mortality rates and a decreased life expectancy of at least 10 years compared to non-disabled folks.

Ultimately, that slightly better-but-not excuse still leans into the ableist dehumanization of disabled students. There is no singular correct way to work with our collection of students; the same is true for our disabled students. What is preventing us from engaging with our disabled students as partners in the learning process? Are we so omnipotent and omniscient that we have nothing left to learn?

Image Description: Vanessa and her walker Pluto are silhouetted as they travel away from the viewer and through a narrow portal of fiery sunlight at the back of the stage, under a large tapestry print of Petrona Viera’s Recreo (c. 1924) displaying a hopeful vision of children dancing through and around each other in the lush green grass.

Vanessa Hernández Cruz and walker Pluto, guest artists, in The world was ending, so they danced, and they were free (2023), directed by Bradford Chin, University of California, Irvine. Lighting design by Jimmy Balistreri; costume design by Kaylynn Sutton; set design by Bradford Chin and Bill Kingsbury. Photo courtesy of Bradford Chin. Image Description: Vanessa and her walker Pluto are silhouetted as they travel away from the viewer and through a narrow portal of fiery sunlight at the back of the stage, under a large tapestry print of Petrona Viera’s Recreo (c. 1924) displaying a hopeful vision of children dancing through and around each other in the lush green grass.

Closing

What our programs perpetuate impacts the professional field and informs how non-dance folks understand both dance and disability. In a competition presentation of my disability-centered research, a non-dance faculty member commented, “I am not sure that people are as narrow-minded about dance as you think. I suggest visiting some community dance classes and see the fun people are having.”

The reality is that this narrow-mindedness does exist—rampantly. Across the board, our collegiate training programs position community dance contexts as less than “professional” dance and subsequently relegate disability to these “less than” contexts. Disability’s rare appearance in our programs often revolves around “teaching to”—rather than “learning from” or “creating with”—disabled folks. There is no training pipeline into professional dance careers for disabled dancers.

Simultaneously, our programs love to celebrate disability artistry (e.g. Kinetic Light or AXIS Dance Company). However, without critically interrogating the accessibility barriers in our program offerings, the celebration is merely that of exceptionalism: that you, the disabled artist, were able to “succeed” despite the barriers that programs like mine continue to reinforce. That you are a heart-warming inspiration, rather than a call to action.

It is high time to ditch the poor excuse that disabled dancers are not present. Instead, ask why disabled dancers are absent and what will be done to remedy those barriers and foster safer spaces for everyone involved.

If a student is made to feel less than their peers on account of their disability, the space is not safe. If a disabled student’s access needs are not taken seriously or acted upon, the space is not safe. So many of the equity issues in our dance programs are issues of access: how we access information, each other, ourselves. An accessibility mindset benefits everyone regardless of non/disability identity.

Just like with other equity work, if the space is not safe for disabled folks, it should come as no surprise when disabled folks leave and other disabled folks subsequently do not replace them. Disabled folks cannot be expected to suddenly show up en masse to a historically unsafe space just because of one act of goodwill. Building trust and recognition toward undoing decades of harm requires time, patience, and consistency.

Do the work, and disabled folks will come. In fact, we are already here, and the time to begin this work was yesterday.

~~

Bradford Chin (he/they) is a disabled dance artist, DEIJ/accessibility consultant, and audio describer for dance based in Chicago and San Francisco. A former dancer with AXIS Dance Company, they received their MFA in Dance from the University of California, Irvine, and their BFA in Dance from California State University, Long Beach.

*I feel I must acknowledge that the current dominant language to describe disabilities is “visible” and “invisible.” My chosen verbiage — perceptible/less perceptible — is not an attempt to prescribe new language; rather, it is an attempt to share my ongoing personal contemplations on the symbolism of language, the construction of ableism and disability, and their intersectional relationship to other forms of power and identity. Are “invisible” disabilities invisible to everyone, or merely less perceptible to those with a reduced sensitivity to a given disability? Who has the power to dictate what is “visible” or “invisible” especially regarding lived experience? In what ways does the “visible/invisible” binary privilege sight, reinforcing the power dynamic that disadvantages folks who are blind or low-vision?

One Response to “The Urgency of Accessibility in Higher Education Dance Training”

  1. Rick Darnell

    Just an awesome thoughtful look at your experience, and a positive article that spreads awareness of differently aboed dancers.

    Thanks
    Rick

    Director Neighborhood Art
    Counterpulse

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