Physically Integrated Dance Company

Curated by
Whitney Bailey
Content via In The News
In The News
Curated by
Whitney Bailey

There are many creative possibilities of physically integrated dance - an approach where performers with and without disabilities perform beside one another. Axis Dance Company is one of the oldest and most prominent physically integrated dance companies in the United States.

People dancing and leaping one dancer in wheelchair

“In the past, physically integrated dance served as a community-building project, but it now presents the possibility of changing the very way we think about bodies.”

Axis tours nationally and internationally while commissioning work from well-known choreographers. The dance company has even appeared several times on the FOX reality show So You Think You Can Dance. Over the last two years, Axis has broadened their artistry and advocacy to delve deeper into the inclusivity of dance and making it more readily visible to society.

Axis Dance Company’s co-founder, Judith Smith, sustained a spinal cord injury from a car accident in 1977. She was seventeen years old. Judith says she was first introduced to improvisation (spontaneously creating movement) by one of her caregivers.

“(Improvisation) helped me reinhabit my body, and to use my wheelchair in ways that weren’t just about getting from point A to point B. I just didn’t know how to relate to the body I was in.”

Judith eventually discovered martial arts where she met dancer, Thais Mazur who was leading a writing and movement workshop for women with disabilities. The pair founded Axis Dance Company in 1987.

However, Judith states the first ten years of creating the dance company involved a lot of advocacy. She says, “The first 10 years we spent just trying to convince people in the bigger dance world, the funding world, that what we were doing wasn’t ‘just therapy.’”

“We really wanted to be taken seriously as a dance company.”

male dancer lifting woman dancer in air

Getting influential people to see dance performances has helped Axis grow into the company it is today. Jeremy Alliger, founder of Dance Umbrella, was one of the first supporters of Axis Dance Company. He assisted Axis with presenting and co-curating the first ever International Festival of Wheelchair Dance in Boston in 1977. Jeremy also helped the dance company commission its first outside choreographer.  

Axis admits the dance company is less visible to the general public because touring with a physically integrated dance company can present many challenges. There are times where there are accommodation issues with theatres. Accessibility is often limited to audience areas because the stages were not designed with performers with disabilities in mind. However, Axis has many resources to reduce barriers for performers with disabilities.

The dance company offers trainings for their dancers with disabilities, an opportunity to perform and create at a professional level. Axis also trains dance instructors on the basics of working with students with disabilities.

“(Axis Dance Company) provide(s) important services to the field and have a strong education mandate, but they also make good work.”

There are factors that can complicate how Axis dancers are perceived by audiences. The problem of “inspiration porn” which can be defined as “the pernicious practice of using those with disabilities purely as foils for the able-bodied.” Judith states for years Axis tried to leave out the word “inspiration” from the performances. However, she finally came to terms with the word and decided to just let it go. “And then I finally just said, ‘Oh to hell with it. Let’s just reown it.’ I mean, we all need inspiration. I need inspiration,” says Judith. The dance company hopes to combat misconceptions about people with disabilities.

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