Propelling Wheelchair Dance Forward

An Interview with Helen Mason, Artistic Director of Propel Dance

BY EMMALY WIEDERHOLT

Helen Mason is the artistic director of Propel Dance, a new all-wheelchair dance company based in Birmingham, UK. With more than 20 years’ experience as a dancer, teacher, and choreographer in a variety of community settings with people with disabilities, Helen launched Propel Dance in 2022 because of the need for more job opportunities for dancers who use wheelchairs. Here, she shares how the company created its first piece, The Snow Queen, how the company navigates accessibility issues in rehearsal and performance spaces, and why it felt important to create a company specifically featuring wheelchair dance.  

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

Two dancers in wheelchairs face off on a black stage. One is wearing a silver dress and the other is wearing black.

Rebecca Fowler and Joseph Powell-Main, Photo Dani Bower

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How did Propel Dance get started?

I have been a dance teacher and artist for 20 years teaching lots of different groups in the community with different disabilities. I felt like I was doing a disservice to the wheelchair users in my groups because they were just getting the arm version of the dances. I wanted to challenge them more and give them a more meaningful dance experience, so I trained in wheelchair dance sport with Para Dance UK. They said I should set up a local group in my area since there wasn’t one. I thought that sounded exciting and they supported me, so I set up Freewheelin Dance, which is a community group mainly aimed at wheelchair users. From my experience, wheelchair users in dance seem to be the most excluded, so Freewheelin Dance is mainly aimed at them, but we are inclusive and all disabilities are welcome. We adapt the routines for anyone, whether they have any disability or no disability at all. That started about six years ago.

A few of the adult dancers had been with me the whole time and wanted to take their dancing to the next level. They didn’t just want to be community dancers. I did a bit of research for them and found that basically there were no opportunities for them in the UK. There are a few inclusive community dance groups or degree programs. The degree programs aren’t fully inclusive; they are just adapting their preexisting curriculum. There are maybe two or three companies in the whole of the UK that employ wheelchair users. There is a real lack. I got talking to Rick Rodgers, who is now our access officer and a former Candoco dancer. He said training is great but where are the jobs? What am I training wheelchair dancers for? He said I needed to create work. That’s where Propel Dance came from. I saw a need in my dancers. In December 2022 we got started, and we premiered our first show in April 2023. It was just a research and development project; we were seeing if there was a need for what we were doing. We performed at three venues in the UK. We sold out every venue, so we answered our own question.

How is Propel Dance different from other inclusive dance companies in the UK?

The other dance companies mix dancers with different disabilities and non-disabled dancers together. Propel Dance is specifically for wheelchair dancers. We fuse contemporary dance with wheelchair dance sport. The movements are all created specifically for someone who uses a chair. I don’t choreograph for a standing dancer and then translate it for a wheelchair user; it’s all completely based on the movements of the person using a wheelchair.

Two dancers in wheelchairs on a black stage lean to one side with one arm extended.

Ayuna Berbidaeva and Kat Ball, Photo Dani Bower

How did you find the dancers? Did all your dancers come from Freewheelin Dance?

There were only a couple of dancers from Freewheelin Dance who were ready, so we looked beyond the program and found a couple of dancers who are London based and a few more in the Midlands. All had completely different dance experiences. A number had ballet or contemporary training before acquiring their disability. One came through Stopgap Dance Company’s program. One came through ballroom and Latin dance. We now have five dancers, and they all have completely different dance experiences.

Can you share more about Propel Dance’s first show, The Snow Queen?

I wanted to do something inclusive not only from a dance point of view but also from an audience point of view. I personally find that audiences get a bit alienated by very abstract contemporary dance. I wanted our first show to be something where anyone could look at the poster and think, “Ah, The Snow Queen, I’ve heard about that story before.” I also didn’t want to do something too obvious like Swan Lake. We took the fairytale of The Snow Queen and modernized it. The piece looks at different relationships, how people deal with trauma and upsets in their lives, and how we are influenced by other people.

The choreographic process started with me coming up with ideas based on wheelchair dance sport and contemporary dance, and the dancers would add ideas, change parts, or try new things. Sometimes we’d scrap everything I’d done and go with an idea one of them had. We were looking specifically at characters and narrative. We brought in a drama specialist who helped us ask, “Why would a specific character move like this?” The characters and storytelling are really important.

What is Propel Dance’s process of developing movement specifically for wheelchair dancers?

I start with a basic idea from my experience with wheelchair dance sport. It could be a formation pattern or a partnering movement. I ask how the movement works on the specific dancer’s body. Every dancer is different, and they all have different wheelchairs which impact their movements. You might get a tight spin or an orbit spin depending on what chair the dancer is using. Some of the dancers are experimental and will try backbends, leans, and tips. The movement comes from them and how best they move. We layer from there.

Lauren Russell, Photo Dani Bower

Are there any power chair users in the company?

We don’t currently but it’s definitely something we’d like to do going forward. At the moment, the biggest challenge we have is theaters and how accessible they are backstage. We’ve had to choose which theaters we perform at based on which ones we could get backstage, which ones had ramps, and which ones had disabled toilets. It was tricky just for manual wheelchair users. We know that when we get to the next stage of welcoming power chair users, we’re going to have a bigger fight for accessibility.

What are some other obstacles Propel Dance has faced in terms of accessibility?

Society is not yet fully inclusive. We mainly have problems with physical spaces, whether that’s theaters or rehearsal spaces. We not only need to get into the building but also park nearby so people don’t have to wheel a long way from their car to the venue. We’ve had problems with taxis not taking us. Also, we need accommodation in hotels, making sure the rooms are accessible.

Something else we are careful about is the rehearsal process. The typical rehearsal process with many companies is quite tiring and exhausting. We only dance for two hours maximum with a break of either half an hour or an hour, and rehearsal days are not more than six hours. We rehearse four days a week. We also do a slower touring process. If we do back-to-back shows, it’s too much. It would exhaust the dancers. It’s so important to keep our dancers safe, well, and healthy. We can’t use the traditional rehearsal and touring model. We’re looking at doing one show per week, rather than zipping around the country.

What kinds of audiences has Propel Dance reached? Are they mostly people with disabilities or a mix of people with and without disabilities?

It’s a mix really. We have some classic dance audiences who are already into dance. Some people saw the poster and thought wheelchair dance sounded interesting. The other section of the audience are disabled people who have traveled very far to see the company onstage. Those are the kinds of people for whom representation matters and they want to see someone like them onstage. That has been really great.

What kinds of press have you received? I’m asking specifically because I understand many disabled artists often struggle with the inspiration narrative.

We’ve tried to manage that as carefully as we can. We’ve had lots of interest. A news company in the US interviewed us, as well as national news here in the UK. We’ve been careful not to talk about medical conditions or explain specific disabilities. We’ve set clear boundaries. We are happy to talk about our show. If someone wants to know what happened to our dancers that made them disabled or if there was an accident, we don’t need to talk about that or disclose any of that. People often fall down the inspirational route, so we’ve had to be strict about what we’re happy to talk about and what we’re not. We’re just another dance company that happens to be made up of dancers who use wheelchairs.

What’s next for Propel Dance? Do you have an upcoming project or focus you’d like to share more about?

We are in the process of writing for more funding. We want to redevelop The Snow Queen into a full-length production and tour it nationally. Before, it was a research and development production. We’re also hoping to take on more dancers.

Any other thoughts?

It’s really important to us that our disabled dancers and community have a voice. We’re looking at creating more roles within the company for disabled people, including in management.

A dancer in a wheelchair and a silver dress dramatically raises her hands like claws at the audience.

Rebecca Fowler as the Snow Queen, Photo Dani Bower

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To learn more, visit propeldance.uk.

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