“What happens when we view the limitations that face people living with disabilities as social and political issues of access, not simply individual medical diagnoses?”
This is the question Dance Teacher Jesse Phillips-Fein posed to her students last fall, when she announced the 2020 Dance Concert –– Exploring the Intersections of Dance and Disability.
The concert, which featured 80 students in the Middle and Upper School, including Young Panthers and Panthers Supreme dance teams, took place on March 6 and 7 in the Pearl Street Meetinghouse; there were four performances and a very full house.
Why dance and disability? Jesse explained that in looking back over the past 10 years of Dance Concert themes, students, for example, had explored the juxtaposition of the post-modern Merce Cunningham and the pop icon Michael Jackson, the work of feminist choreographers Pearl Primus and Elizabeth Streb, and the relationship between music and dance through Fela Kuti, Bill T. Jones and South African Gumboot. “But nowhere in these themes or my curriculum was the work of disabled dancers or choreographers,” she said.
BFS student-dancers met the challenge of thinking – and dancing – outside the box. A few reflected on their experiences:
Justin H.Justin H, 10th grader “Dance concert is such a unique experience for people like me to express themselves freely through dance…This year’s theme was very interesting. It opened up a different perspective for me. Iit made you think more about how dance is translated in different people. For example, in one of the pieces, we have sign language, and it’s very interesting to see how that actually could be a dance in itself; it’s quite theatrical, in many ways.”
Talia K-LTalia K-L 8th grader “We pour our hearts and our souls into these performances and we take them really seriously…not just in dance concert, but in BFS as a whole. We always ask ourselves who is being left out of the conversation that we are having and in this case of the dance department, it was people who are disabled. So of course we wanted to bring that into the light. I think that once you bring in the unknown and the unrepresented everything becomes more interesting and more real.”
Alexandra H.Alex Hamilton, 11th grader “This year’s dance concert theme is very different from others over the six years I’ve been at Brooklyn Friends and that I’ve participated in the dance concert. It highlights different interpretations and how people portray what a disability really is and what it means. In the Panthers Supreme peace, the dancing is it’s to the song “Monster” and it really explores how certain people with disabilities are perceived as monsters. That’s how some people view disability.”
“This learning is not without complication,” says Jesse. “Translating movement from disabled to able-bodied dancers raised complex questions about imitation, mockery and appropriation. Yet if we traverse with care, we can learn from how disabled people live and move in the world, how developing their own “aesthetics” and ways of being can help all of us to challenge the strictures of normativity and encourage us to think and be in new ways.”
“These young artists are not only asking us to dream about a world where all people have what they need to thrive,” she concluded, “They are demanding that we work together to create it.”