A Safe Place to Stare

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

"Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it." -- Goethe

Watching Derek Paravicini and Adam Ockelford reminded me of this quote and the two life-changing moments during which it was significant.

Firstly, when I was 19 (having already graduated with a degree in Psychology) and decided to dance, only one person supported my choice, and he gave me a tiny, yellowed slip of paper with this quote. I taped it to my bathroom mirror and read it everyday. He was the only one who believed I could actually achieve my dream. Everyone else thought I was simply "dreaming." His singular support was instrumental in my "against all odds" passionate undertaking of dance.

In 2006, five years after forming my own dance company, I found myself referring to this quote again because, again, I was faced with another dream that was tangible, passionate, rewarding and inherently complicated and full of obstacles.

I had met visual artist Lisa Bufano who had asked me to help her make a 25-minute dance solo to be performed in NYC. Lisa was not your typical dancer. She was a bilateral amputee with no fingers and no lower legs. As we worked and I learned about her community (a steep learning curve), her fierceness, vulnerability and incredible talent inspired me to not only create a beautiful solo for her but to continue working with people with disabilities and make it part of my mission. Lisa had become my muse in the truest sense of the word and my experience with her changed my career and the very complexion of my company. She also went on to join another dance company in California and create her own work.

People go to watch dance performances to see what they cannot do themselves. Technically trained dancers and persons with disabilities share the quality of being physically dissimilar from the general population. Dancers are "limitless"; persons with disabilities are "unable." Can a dance work featuring performers with a variety of limbs -- truncated, serpentine, absent, crooked, elegant -- be perceived as viable work of art that transcends the striking physical differences seen onstage? Can a public performance featuring persons with distinctive limbs both transform and alter misconceptions of the disability and dance communities? Can it create new frames of reference and therefore new opportunities? What do these two groups share? Can audiences reflect on their own bodies by seeing and confronting their responses to bodies different from theirs? Can people see, as I see, the unconventional beauty and artistry of this unique conglomeration of bodies in space?

These are the questions that drive my creative process and my mission to make passionate dances that redefine beauty and virtuosity through performance, discourse and educational activities.

In the skinscape of mainstream diversity, disability in the arts seems far behind. An ever-increasing aging population, returning disabled veterans, and a rise in incidences of conditions like autism have brought disability home to greater numbers of people. Still, there remains great misunderstanding, continued discomfort, and unnecessary stigma. There is a tendency to want to categorize the work-put it in a neat package so that it is safe. Like Derek being referred to as the "human ipod," in a preview for the Kennedy Center performance we did in 2010, the writer wrote that the company featured amputees and people suffering from disabilities. At the time, there were no amputees or wheelchair users (another assumption) in the cast and as one of my dancers so aptly wrote after seeing this article: "Please clarify, which of the dancers is suffering? I have it on good authority the dancers are a fairly raucous, cheerful bunch of folks..."

"Gimp" is a word we are taught not to use, just as we are taught not to stare at people who have physical disabilities. But gimp is also defined as "fighting spirit, interwoven fabric and trembling with ecstasy." The GIMP Project -- my body of work featuring disabled and non-disabled dancers-is not sentimental. It is not victim art, nor does it fall under the traditional definition of "integrated dance." It's about expansion, not accommodation and challenges existing social constructs through the potent/sensitive lens of dance. The stage offers people a rare opportunity: a safe place to stare; and post performance discussions address the shame, fear, and epiphanies an audience might experience.

Mentored by some of the most active disability activists in New York City over the last seven years, this body of work aims to fully integrate the cast members and to explore a range of experience through sensual, athletic, daring and, yes, even sexual movement. My approach has been to not fit the disabled performers into a traditional dance mold but to use their unique movements and personalities to create works that celebrate difference and the magnificence of someone taking the risk of putting themselves on the stage knowing that they are unconventional in that arena.

But we are also keenly aware of the trap of "the freak show" or what I refer to as the "isn't that wonderful" syndrome. Lisa once asked me if the audience was applauding her because of her disability or because of what she had just danced. My producer at the time answered "Both." I wonder how Derek feels. Like Adam, we combat this by working with great rigor and investing in a high standard of artistry.

The GIMP Project tours internationally. Through a steady persistence, I believe we have impacted -- and continue to impact -- a diverse audience (that continues to expand) and a generation of young artists both with and without disabilities.

From young fifth graders who saw Lawrence (a dancer with cerebral palsy) as a superhero after watching him in a male duet where he is combative and tender with a non-disabled dancer; to those who claim that after initially being shocked by what they were seeing (a woman with no legs or a man with Parkinson's) they left the theater awestruck by the beauty of those same performers, there is a shift in perception.

Derek's nanny had the intuition, insight and willingness to investigate a hunch. Adam saw the talent and nurtured it. What a gift to the world and what an inspiration to me to keep forging ahead with the work I am doing.

Heidi Latsky has had her own NYC-based dance company Heidi Latsky Dance since 2001. Since 2006, the company has toured throughout the United States and internationally with the GIMP Project at venues like Lincoln Center, Kennedy Center, Dublin Dance Festival, and for special events and disability festivals in places like Liverpool, Kathmandu, and Dusseldorf. The company has an extensive outreach program and Heidi has lectured about the work at various universities including Harvard and Barnard.

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