We will use our blog to share thoughts and observations from our work. Please feel free to comment on the posts.
  • Dance, Medicine and Marginalisation: The Limits of Law by Shawn Harmon

    At our third InVisible Difference Symposium, ‘Beyond the Tipping Point? Dance Disability and Law’ (6-7 November 2015, in Coventry), a number of questions were raised in relation to the operation of law in the dance, and more specifically, the disabled dance setting. While some areas of law are much more pertinent to the practice of dance and the actions that dancers might take to protect their rights and income streams, the significance of the medical framework, it seems, should not be dismissed. It might be conceded that this framework – which includes medical education, medical law, and the vast medical architecture – is not so relevant as a legal standard-setter in dance (i.e., it does not directly influence participation in the creative process, ownership of dance, or the ‘mainstreaming’ of disabled dance), but it does sit stoutly if not resoundingly in the background.

    The medical framework, which is informed by the medical model of disability, is a powerful social organiser, informing general sensibilities about health, healthiness, fitness, etc. In short, it imposes a particular ‘gaze’ on (disabled) people and so serves as a marginalising social force. Through its so-called objective (scientific) standards/measures, it identifies species-typical functioning, and so helps define the ‘normal body’. Thus, it characterises the different body as something that is ‘broken’ – as something in need of repair, or special management – and so not to be highly valued. To put the worst possible spin on it, in a very strong and authoritative voice, this framework says, perhaps subtly:

    What you get from a disabled dancer is something that is produced from a position of weakness or un-wholeness, and so cannot be expected to be as good as something from a non-disabled dancer – it is therapeutic, not expert, and because the dancer’s underlying physiological and medically-labelled condition is something we would wish, acting beneficently, to eradicate, or to cure, or to manage, we need not trouble ourselves to articulate measures for excellence and debate that is specifically appropriate for these dancers; to do so may be counteractive to our corrective programme.

    This message, even if unintentional, influences perspectives and outcomes in cultural practice, cultural acceptance, and cultural memory.

    Of course, while disabling conditions can benefit from medical interventions and support, it is not a given that we need to ‘other’ these bodies, which has the effect of marginalising or devaluing them and the things they can accomplish. Indeed, while many of those dancers with whom we interacted did not consider the medical framework to be particularly relevant to their work, they did have negative experiences within the medical architecture, and that, in some cases, coloured the creative process, the stories told, etc. One of the messages coming from the Symposium was that more could be done in medical, ethical, and legal education to change the view taken of variance and variety in the human body, and to encourage a less potentially disempowering gaze within the context of the medical encounter.

    In support of this, the importance of human rights was noted. Interestingly, both medical law and bioethics are informed by the human rights framework (and some might even suggest that they are sub-categories of this framework). Indeed, medical law has come a long way in the last 20 years to move medical practice away from old-style paternalism toward a more dignity-centred, patient-centred, autonomy-grounded approach. And we are now seeing the very beginnings of that approach being bolstered in some respects by an equally dignity-based solidarity approach – an approach to decision-making that isn’t just about empowering patients and patient families, but is also about viewing decisions within the context of a wider caring society within which we all acknowledge that we owe duties in addition to holding rights. It would be useful to think about how we can further encourage and operationalise this solidarity approach, and what that might mean for the acceptance and indeed the celebration of difference within society and within cultural practices (like dance).

    This suggestion highlights something that is critically important to recognise, namely that there is ‘politics’ in what we’re doing, and there are limits to what the law can accomplish. Indeed, various participants, in addition to the project team, noted that fact. And if the law is not really getting us where we want to be because of the model it endorses (i.e., as in medical law), or the limitations placed on who can make claims and against whom (i.e., as in human rights law), then we need some non-legal strategies. Bearing that in mind, there are two things that stakeholders might do.

    First, public debate. Human rights discourses could be used more often and more explicitly within dance, bioethics, and beyond to help shift perspectives on the value of difference/variance. In undertaking these discourses, there is value in thinking at a level higher than rights – we might move away from discussions about standards and think more about the values that inform standards, and how we can better operationalise those values to make a more equitable society in which disabled dance, for example, is better understood, better supported, better heralded, etc. UNESCO encouraged this with its Universal Declaration of the Human Genome and Human Rights (1997), [1] and its Universal Declaration of Bioethics and Human Rights (2005), [2] both of which are meant to inform domestic discourses. As practitioners of law, dance, medicine, and more we should explicitly draw on these instruments whenever we can, transporting them beyond the legal setting.

    Second, we might think very seriously about reorienting medical education. While physiological approaches and scientific measures of the ‘normal’ are inevitable and valuable, medical training should be altered such that those who emerge at the end of the process and become part of the powerful framework that is the medical architecture have a broader and more holistic perspective, with a new and less marginalising language, for this language and perspective clearly shapes society’s perspective of normality and of the value attached to different ways of being. Encouragingly, we heard some stories at the Symposium of medical schools trying new approaches to educating their students about disability, such as getting med students to partner with disabled dancers for a semester to better understand the different ways of being. Programmes like this echo the recommendations previously made. [3]

    [1] Universal Declaration of the Human Genome and Human Rights (1997), at http://portal.unesco.org/en/ev.php-URL_ID=13177&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html.
    [2] Universal Declaration of Bioethics and Human Rights (2005), at http://portal.unesco.org/en/ev.php-URL_ID=31058&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html.
    [3] S Harmon, ‘The Invisibility of Disability: Using Dance to Shake from Bioethics the Idea of ‘Broken Bodies’’ (2015) 29 Bioethics 488-498.
  • Walk the walk, talk the talk: a critique of the medical model by Michel Foucault. by Mathilde Pavis

    From the beginning, Invisible Difference decided to focus on physical disability in connection to dance and law. Though many factors came into play in deciding to narrow down our investigation to physical disability, the absence of ‘problems’ to fix regarding the practice of artists considered as mentally disabled was not one of them. We do acknowledge that there is much to do in terms of research, support and appreciation of the art made by mentally-disabled individuals. There is also much to learn from the historical evolution of what was once called the “art of the insane”.[1] The cross-overs between our work with differently-abled dancers and the evolving status of “mental art” in our society will thus be a theme running through this blog post and future ones.

    Modelling disability

    Our research extensively engaged with the literature of disability studies and the distinction between the medical, social and affirmative models drawn by scholars and activitists on the perception of disability in our society. To summarise, very briefly, the contention of each model, the medical model places the source of disability on the medical ‘condition’ of the disabled body whereas the social model shifts it onto socially constructed understanding of normality, and in turn, disability.[2] The affirmative model confirms most of the contentions held by its social equivalent but furthers its affirmation by urging a celebration of disability as an empowering trait rather than a shaming limiting one.[3] The medical model is especially criticised for over-medicalising the body and normality for it recommends cures and treatments of conditions it diagnoses as deviating from the norm. If my reading of the social and affirmative models is correct, their claims against the medical model essentially lie in the argument that what the medicalisation of disability achieves is the distancing of the nature of disability from social considerations. It displaces the source of disability from the society and its culture to locate it within the realm of medical biology and science. Re-contextualising disability within socio-cultural parameters would allow us to question the need to treat or eradicate it. If normality and disability becomes relative social constructs, the necessity to cure the different body should disappear or at least could be mitigated more easily.

    Socially-driven medicines

    This particular criticism of the medical model as a model pretending to approach disability from an objective and scientific perspective deprived of cultural bias, is where interesting parallels could be drawn between the literature of disability studies and the history of madness explored in other fields. I would suggest that Foucault is critical of similar pretends conveyed in medical narratives in his thesis, ‘Madness and Civilisation: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason’ (1961).[4]

    In his book, the philosopher heavily criticises the portrayal of the French physician Philippe Pinel (1745-1826) and English William Tuke (1732-1822) as philanthropists and liberators of the mentally-ill; a depiction commonly found in writings on the history of psychiatry and psychopathology.[5] The two men are often associated with the creation of asylums which supposedly marked the beginning of a more humane treatment of mentally disabled patients who were then removed from ordinary prisons and hospitals.[6] Literally removing the chains off mentally-ill inmates and prisoners, Pinel and Tuke are deemed to be the leaders of the “liberation of the insane” and the fathers of modern psychiatry in the nineteenth century.[7]

    Such liberation is supposed to have taken place through a (the first) movement of medicalisation of ‘insanity’, understood very broadly at the time. Although men of medicine were involved, Foucault points out that the work initiated by Pinel and Tuke was mainly based on socially ‘training’ their patients rather than medically treating them in the modern sense of the term. Though very different, both Pinel’s and Tuke’s models were based on the principle that guilt and self-understanding of patients’ own lack of reason were the solutions to curing their insanity. Patients became responsible for their own condition.[8] They were treated via the adoption of what was considered normal social behaviour and settings which were recreated inside the walls of asylums. Patients were required to dress up to attend in-house tea-parties and pursue activities mimicking employment as well as engage with physical exercise.[9] If civilised communication was unattainable, silence was ordered. Methods such as camisoles, isolation or cold showers were used as punishment for failing to conform to the behavioural patterns selected by their physicians, but not as treatments per se. [10] This is why Foucault holds that mentally-ill and disabled inmates were transferred from legal to moral prisons. To him, the medicalisation of the treatment of individuals considered as insane had very little to do with any form of liberation.[11] This medicalised shift was operated on the premise of an unashamed the moralisation of disability and/or madness.

    Foucauldian parallels

    The social-construction supporting the science applied to asylum inmates in the nineteenth century was laid out unhidden, and positioned at the crux of medical treatments. The merging of medicalisation and moralisation of mental illness and disability is precisely what Foucault seems to castigate in his writings. Though his theory was criticised for occulting parts of the context in which Pinel and Tuke’s work took place,[12] his position does resonate in a strangely familiar manner with the theories put forwards by the social and affirmative models. Comparing the approach of the current medical model and its nineteenth-century-old predecessor, the two appear to rely on socially-constructed understandings of disability and mental-illness. Although, one might argue that the moralisation of disability softened as decades went by, both medical approaches were and are motivated by culturally or socially driven intentions to normalise difference. Whether it occurs through the mimicking of tea parties and other socially-acceptable behavioural patterns or surgical interventions is irrelevant since the fundamental stand points they support with regard to disability appear to be the same. This suggests that the medical model has a long-standing history in western culture, though not necessarily one which distanced itself from moral judgements.

    As my journey in the history of ‘art of the insane’ begins, I thought I would share with you the first intersection I came across between my new line of research and previous conversations held in this blog.

    [1] See on this, MacGregor JM, The Discovery of the Art of the Insane (Princeton University Press 1989). See also, Prinzhorn H, Artistry of the Mentally Ill (1995th edn, Springer-Verlag Wien 1972)
    [2] Shakespeare, T., and Watson, N. The social model of disability: an outdated ideology? In: Exploring Theories and Expanding Methodologies: Where We Are and Where We Need to Go. Series: Research in social science and disability (2) (JAI: Amsterdam and New York, 2001) 9-28; Brisenden S, ‘Independent Living and the Medical Model of Disability’ (1993) 1 Disability, Handicap and Society 173
    [3] Gabel S and Peters S, ‘Presage of a Paradigm Shift? Beyond the Social Model of Disability toward Resistance Theories of Disability’ (2004) 19 Disability & Society 585
    [4] Foucault M, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (Richard Howard ed, Pantheon Books 1961) ; see for its original version: Foucault M, Folie et Déraison : Histoire de La Folie a L’age Classique (Union Générale d’Editions 1961)
    [5] Foucault M, Folie et Déraison : Histoire de La Folie a L’age Classique (Union Générale d’Editions 1961) 249-52
    [6] ibid
    [7] ibid
    [8] ibid 283
    [9] ibid 256-7, 263-4, 275
    [10] ibid 277-8
    [11] ibid 283, 286-7, 291
    [12] Foucault’s thesis was a warmly praised it was vehemently refuted. See for example, Roudinesco E and others, Penser La Folie, Essais Sur Michel Foucault (Galilée 1992); Still A and Velody I (eds), Rewriting the History of Madness: Studies in Foucault’s Histoire de La Folie (Routeledge 1992)
  • Understanding and Appreciation. by Hetty Blades

    Reading ‘Let’s Dance! - But who owns it?’ (Waelde, Whatley and Pavis 2014), I was interested by the suggestion that increased audience understanding about the nature and quality of dance works might help with commercial exploitation. On the one hand this suggestion seems straightforward enough, if audiences understand a choreographer’s work, they are more likely to appreciate it and therefore buy tickets for future performances. It seems that this perspective is prevalent across the wide array of contemporary dance practices. The wealth of after show discussions, choreographic publications and public articulations by choreographers, imply that highlighting the labour, intention and thinking behind the work will increase audience engagement with it. So is the need for this type of extra-performance information particularly relevant in the case of dance works made and/or performed by people with disabilities? As Shawn points out in his blog post last month, such work, “greatly diversifies the bodies and aesthetics on view and the experiences and stories offered for interpretation”. Does this diversity mean that more explanation is required? If so, what are the repercussions of this claim?

    The idea that contemporary dance can be opaque and that novice audience’s don’t always ‘get it’ has been around for some time. But what does the suggestion that audience appreciation depends upon education and access to information from outside of performance mean for the nature of the form? Such questions have been thoroughly explored and debated in the philosophy of music and visual art. Conventional theories of art appreciation, dating back to Kant (1855 [1781]), commonly suggest that art should be perceived, appreciated, valued and judged merely on the aesthetic experience that it affords (See Stolnitz 1969), specifically, that knowledge external to the physical experience of the work is not relevant. This view, labeled ‘aesthetic empiricism’, is defined by David Davies (2004) as the term used for, “epistemologies of art that minimize the role, in artistic appreciation, of resources not available or derivable from an immediate encounter with an instance of a work” (Davies 2004: 25).

    A strictly empiricist opinion, that a work of art should speak entirely for itself, is perhaps a little strong, and arguably counter-intuitive. After all, what does it really mean to have an ‘immediate encounter’? No one sees from a neutral position; our appreciative capabilities are constructed and developed through a wide array of experiences and information. However, there is value in thinking through the counterargument, that extra information is always required to truly appreciate and value a work, which implies that a dance performance itself is not enough. This also feels like a problematic outcome.

    So where does that lead us? It seems that dance spectatorship, in alignment with other forms of artistic appreciation, requires expertise and therefore training. We might want to argue that performance is enough, but we need background knowledge that enables us to encounter the work fully in performance.

    In ‘Let’s Dance!’ Charlotte, Sarah and Mathilde suggest that this research project has shown that understanding the artistic intention and artistic skills informs audience appreciation of a work. They consider audience responses to a range of examples by disabled dancers, which demonstrate a set of reactions that are arguably distinct from responses to non-disabled dancers. In response, they suggest that deepening understanding,

    allows the viewer to go beyond a response of ‘Ain’t they Marvelous’, or a wholly negative response, or no response at all, or a response of ‘why bother, what is the point?’, to a position where it is possible to learn how to critique and appreciate the dance as a serious art form. (Waelde, Whatley and Pavis 2014: 6)

    So whilst questions around understanding, empiricism and appreciation are relevant for many choreographers, these findings suggest that there is further motivation to inform audiences about features of works made and performed by disabled dance artists, in order to challenge and confront preconceptions, and allow for dance by disabled and non-disabled dancers to be responded to on the same terms. Perhaps the advocation of an empiricist perspective is the remit of those working in art forms with longstanding traditions of audience education. The appreciation of features of visual art and music are often taught in school, and are aspired to as forms of cultural capital. It seems that if the appreciation of dance, made and performed by all bodies, was integrated into educational and cultural value systems, we may well be able to argue that a work needs no explanation. For now, however it seems that encouraging audiences to see, understand and value dance by disabled dance artists can not only help these artists to develop commercially, but also to shift the cultural landscape.


    Davies, D. (2004) Art as Performance. USA, UK: Blackwell Publishing

    Kant, I. (1855) The Critique of Pure Judgment. trans. By Mieklejohn, J.M.D. [originally published 1790] London: Henry G. Bohn. Also available from http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/k/kant/immanuel/k16ju/complete.html [01 (March 2014]

    Stolnitz, J. (1969) ‘The Aesthetic Attitude’, in Introductory Readings in Aesthetics. ed. by Hospers, J. [originally published in 1960] New York: The Free Press, 17 – 27

    Waelde, C., Whatley, S. & Pavis, M. (2014) ‘Let’s Dance! - but who owns it?’, [online]. Available from https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/16903 [29.09.15]
  • Digging Deep: Dance and Energy by Abbe Brown

    A key theme of InVisible Difference is new interaction between fields. A forthcoming international intellectual property conference in Cape Town provides the opportunity for one team member to explore what should be the common themes underpinning intellectual property - irrespective of the intellectual property right in question, the creative or innovative discipline, geography, or the people involved. Being on the blog rota this week provides the opportunity for her to share some (very) preliminary thoughts.

    To develop the possible common themes, two case studies will be explored in respect of the UK and South Africa. The first is dance, by people with different bodies, in the UK and in South Africa. A collection exploring post apartheid dance in South Africa, which in particular considers whiteness, women and disability is a valuable source [1], alongside the InVisible Difference outputs to date. The second case study is renewable energy. This was chosen as it is an apparently radically distinct field from dance, and has attracted the attention of intellectual property scholars.

    Yet are dance and energy distinct? They both involve questions of individual and group creativity and public benefit. It has been suggested that as energy sources change, society changes, and this can be traced in art over time. These findings were presented at the Aberdeen May Festival in 2015[2]. The Beyond Perception 2015 conference held in Aberdeen explored links between creativity and the physical environment from an anthropological perspective[3].

    Legally, there are synergies. Dance and energy are both in complex legal and philosophical frameworks. Intellectual property rights exist in respect of dance and energy. This is on the basis of an international treaty which requires that states (including the UK and South Africa) have intellectual property laws which can cover dance (subject to the points explored in InVisible Difference) and energy. To support creativity, there are arguments in favour of reward models, encouragement of investment, exclusive approaches to property and utilitarianism. These are manifested in contemporary approaches to intellectual property. There are other international and regional treaties and instruments which apply to the UK and South Africa. These address access to information and culture for all, sustainable development and rights to life, health and a satisfactory environment. These are supported by and complement practices and theories regarding equality, distributive justice, community action and stewardship.

    This suggests that there are common themes underpinning creativity in dance and energy. The present intellectual property framework is firmly entrenched in the first, more controlling approach, notwithstanding the potential for limits to be imposed on rights. So, if the more open second set of common themes is preferred, or arguments are developed as how why this must be done, bringing this about could be a challenge. Scholars are developing arguments for intellectual property to be recalibrated (with countries taking a different approach to different rights in different contexts) and also as to how different international organisations and treaties can work together and be part of a more integrated approach to international decision making. These valuable approaches could avoid, say sustainability and equality being ignored in intellectual property decision making.

    What might arise here, however, is a call for more fundamental change - shifting the foundations of intellectual property. Further posts may follow….

    [1] S Friedman (ed) Post-Apartheid Dance: Many Bodies Many Voices Many Stories (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012)
    [2] B Lord Art & Energy. How Culture Changes (The AAM Press, 2014); https://www.abdn.ac.uk/mayfestival/events/6613/
    [3] Beyond Perception 15 http://www.abdn.ac.uk/socsci/disciplines/anthropology/beyond-perception.php

  • A Wider Significance for a Philosophy of Disabled Dance? by Shawn Harmon

    As noted by Charlotte in last month’s blog, Bunker, Pakes and Rowell (2007) argue that dance raises unique opportunities to question:

    • the importance of the human body (in dance);
    • the dynamics of agency and individuality; and
    • the performer/observer relationship.

    If this is true—and surely it is—it is perhaps more acutely true for disabled dance, which greatly diversifies the bodies and aesthetics on view and the experiences and stories offered for interpretation. That being so, disabled dance might have a surprisingly wide significance—indeed wider than so-called ‘mainstream’ dance—for these are questions that are directly relevant to much wider concerns around:

    • the notions of normality and social acceptance of difference;
    • language and dynamism in relation to the human form; and
    • the characterisation, availability and mode of (legitimate) interventions into the human body.

    And these, in turn, are—or should be—of great interest to medical ethics, and to the larger, though too often blinkered, medical/ethical community.

    It has long been assumed that the role of the humanities in medicine is to provide critical reflection on assumptions and predominant metaphors in medicine and the healthcare professions. However, the reality is that the medical humanities have shied away from this role (MacNeill, 2011). In fact, Bishop (2008) has accused the medical humanities of acting as a ‘compensatory mechanism for the mechanical thinking that has dominated and continues to dominate medicine’, while Davis and Morris (2008) note that the humanities have too readily accepted a boundary between ‘biology’ and ‘culture’.

    The result has been that medicine, with the connivance of bioethics, has assumed a dubious distinction between fact and value as if medicine (aligned with science) is about fact, and ethics and the humanities are about value. MacNeill (2011), at 87, has reported:

    Anyone engaged (as I am each year) in interviewing incoming medical students will know that the ‘body-as-machine’ and a ‘story of restitution’ are dominant narratives of students even before entry into a medical course. … [T]hese are inaccurate and misleading portrayals of medical practice, yet the metaphors have been remarkably resilient.

    The effect of this acquiescence has been to marginalise the humanities, and the arts, in the healthy evolution of medical and life science development and education practices.

    Ultimately, as argued by MacNeill (2011), science and the humanities are incomplete without each other. Neither can adequately answer the questions we ask of them without admittance of the insights and interpretations offered by the arts and cultural practices. On this, it has been argued that, ‘the biological without the cultural, or the cultural without the biological, is doomed to be reductionist at best and inaccurate at worst’ (Davis & Morris, 2008).

    In short, the arts, in addition to a more critical humanities, are important. Avant-garde art like disabled dance—and some view disabled dance as one of the last avant-garde movements (Bragg, 2011)—can only help. But to do so, it must trigger discussions about embodiment and aesthetics that go beyond dance; its questions, its interpretations, its framework of evaluation must bleed into medical and ethical debates and, importantly, medical education.

    If it hopes to do this, a sound philosophy of disabled dance—an agreed framework for talking critically about a much wider range of embodiments, creative processes and aesthetics, and lived experiences (on the margins)—is critical not only for improving debates around, and undertsandings of, disabled dance and dance more broadly, but also of the ‘divergent’ body in society, and indeed the diversity and dynamism of the human body itself. Given this, our efforts within the InVisible Dance project to ensure that a broad range of disciplines contribute to that framework are surely not wasted; indeed Cooper Albright and Brandstetter (2015) acknowledge that, whilst critical scholarship about dance and disability has expanded, it still remains too narrow, with too little attention paid to how physical difference can radically transform the transmission of embodied knowledge, and to debates about how to dance.

    And in our pursuit for a philosophy of disabled dance, let us always remain keenly aware of its potential usefulness in expanding our social-shaping medical narratives and our medicine-shaping (bio)ethical assessments.

    J Bishop, ‘Rejecting medical humanism: Medical humanities and the metaphysics of medicine’ (2008) 29 J Med Humanit 15.
    M Bragg, ‘The last remaining avant-garde movement’ The Guardian, 11 December 2011.
    J Bunker, A Pakes and B Rowell, Thinking Through Dance: The Philosophy of Dance Performance and Practices (Hampshire: Dance Books, 2013).
    A Cooper Albright and G Brandstetter, ‘The Politics of a Prefix’ (2015) 6 Choreographic Practices 3.
    L Davis and D Morris, Biocultures Manifesto (2008) 38 New Lit Hist 411.
    P MacNeill, ‘The arts and medicine: A challenging relationship’ (2011) 37 J Med Humaniti
  • Disability Dance and Philosophy: Liminal Spaces. by Charlotte Waelde

    Disability Arts is a movement that has been around since the mid 1970s although the exact starting date seems unclear. When it comes to describing what the movement is, Allan Sutherland opines that disability art is ‘art made by disabled people which reflects the experience of disability'. Sutherland also suggests that without disability politics, disability art may not be what it is now:

    "I don’t think disability arts would have happened without disability politics coming first… Our politics teach us that we are oppressed, not inferior… Our politics have given us self-esteem. They have taught us, not simply to value ourselves, but to value ourselves as disabled people." (Sutherland, 1989: 159).

    Something of the political flavor of the movement can be gleaned from a blog post that Melvyn Bragg wrote in 2007. In narrating the outcomes of a debate held at the Tate with the motion that ‘Disability and deaf arts ought to be dead and buried, ie that we are all in the mainstream now’ Bragg noted the passion elicited in favour of Disability Arts, going so far as to quote the view of one of the speakers that Disability Arts could be seen as ‘the last remaining avant-garde movement’ comparable to the early days of feminism and the black arts. More recently, Dadafest, as part of its Congress in 2014, held a debate with the motion ‘This congress proposes that Disability Arts is a form of human rights activism and as such only disabled people should be its leaders.’ The motion was ultimately carried by 31 votes to 26 – a surprisingly close result perhaps.

    Where, then, do our dance collaborators stand in relationship to Disability Arts and the Disability Arts movement: does their work sit within this philosophical tradition? Their work is certainly about disability: Falling in Love with Frida by Caroline Bowditch and Guide Gods by Claire Cunningham are excellent examples. But we have asked our dance collaborators questions around Disability Arts and the response has been muted. The central focus of their efforts is the same: it is that they all want to make great dance and to be considered great dancers. In other words, they wish to be viewed and evaluated as dance artists equal to other professional dance artists. Their approach is, in essence, apolitical.

    Such a response would seem at odds with the philosophy of the Disability Arts movement. In keeping with the politicised nature of the movement, Paul Darke argues that,

    "Disability art philosophy is based upon legitimising the experience of disabled people as equal within art and all other cultural practices’ … it is ‘part of a process of re-presenting a more accurate picture of society, life, disability and impairment and art itself. Disability Art is a challenge to, an undermining of (as a minimum), traditional aesthetic and social values." (Darke, 2003:130)

    While, as we have argued extensively elsewhere, disabled dance certainly challenges traditional aesthetic values, it is difficult to claim that it also seeks to undermine them in the sense of making traditional aesthetics less powerful or less likely to succeed on their own terms. But if then the philosophy underlying Disability Art is found wanting when it comes disabled dance, what should we replace it with, and indeed, why should we be concerned with finding philosophical foundations for the work that our collaborators do?

    Thinking about the ‘why’ question first. This goes to the heart of what philosophy is about: it is a quest to find rational arguments to help us to deepen our understanding and knowledge of the world around us and to give us a way of making sense of the world. When we sit within a particular philosophical tradition, it can act both as a guiding principle for our actions, and enable outsiders to better understand what drives and shapes our actions. The brief discussion on the philosophy underpinning the Disability Arts noted above illustrates this point: an artist working within the movement follows an established tradition while at the same time her audience has an intellectual framework to better understand the work.

    A quest for a philosophy should not, however, be a sop for an intellectual inferiority complex, reminiscent of the fears of Duchamp who, Copeland reports,

    "seemed to suffer from an intellectual inferiority complex – or at least a fear that the visual arts were perceived as less ‘mentally demanding’ than the verbal arts. In a remarkable burst of candor, he once admitted, ‘the painter was considered stupid, but the poet and writer were intelligent. I wanted to be intelligent." (Copeland, 2004: 226).

    Neither should a quest for a philosophy be used to shield a work against aesthetic judgment. As Boyce has noted, there is a mutual dependence between the artistic and philosophical attainment of a work:

    "it is in virtue of what the work achieves as art that it achieves something philosophically important. It is in virtue of what it achieves philosophically that the work succeeds as art." (Boyce, 2013: 265)

    A philosophy of disabled dance then can help us to deepen our understanding and knowledge both of the dance and of the philosophy of the dance. A starting point in thinking about what shape that might take, may be to consider the advice offered in the introduction to the collection, ‘Thinking through dance: the philosophy of dance performance and practices’, edited by Jenny Bunker, Anna Pakes and Bonnie Rowell (Dance Books Ltd: Hampshire. 2013). In it they tell us that dance as an art form poses unique philosophical questions. These include issues and observations relating to the importance of the human body in dance; of the need to understand the dynamics of agency, the dancer experience and audience understanding; of the collaborative nature of the dance and the individuality of the body; and of the meaning generated in different dance activities – among others. These questions, we are told, become particularly acute as dance enters the academy and starts to test ‘traditional assumptions about knowledge’ and institutional conventions.

    These are all pertinent to disabled dance. But disabled dance raises much deeper enquiries. It also requires us to interrogate ideas around disablism, essentialism, exclusion, voyeurism, otherness, invisibility – among others – and challenges us to find insightful meaning around which the dance, dancers and audiences can coalesce.

    We will be exploring these questions in the edited collection to be published later this year as part of our InVisible Difference project and through which we aim to make significant advances in our understanding of the philosophy of disabled dance. Having deepened and broadened our knowledge about the legal frameworks that support the disabled dancer in her efforts, this philosophical enquiry will form yet another part of the mosaic of our understanding about disabled dance and which, cumulatively, will contribute to moving ‘Beyond the Tipping Point’.

    (For details of our symposium on 6-7 November 2015 called ‘Beyond the Tipping Point? Dance, Disability and Law’ click here).

  • Mainstream or Marginal? Still on the Edge... by Sarah Whatley

    Charlotte’s blog post encouraged me to reflect on a number of recent encounters with discussions about dance and disability; some very stimulating and illuminating, but some acknowledging or even inadvertently reinforcing the status quo; disability is still marginalised in dance.

    Challenging the status quo is the recent special issue of Choreographic Practices (Vol. 6.1) – Dis/abilities: The Politics of a Prefix – a fabulous collection of intelligent and probing articles (including one from us!), guest edited by Ann Cooper Albright and Gabriele Brandstetter available here.

    In their editorial they say that whilst critical scholarship about dance and disability has expanded, ‘disability remains a marginalised and under-theorized area in dance studies. Many discussions in the dance field remain on the level of single-issue identity politics with the specific goal of improving access to dance for people with disabilities. Whilst we applaud this important focus on inclusion, we also want to acknowledge how physical difference can radically transform the transmission of embodied knowledge as well as the choreographic act’. They offer that the writing in the issue is ‘intended to challenge our thinking not only about who can dance, but also about how to dance’. Their emphasis on how to dance feels important – we are often focused on access, equal opportunities and the right to participate (etc.) but as we have discovered through our work on this project, there is not enough attention on the dancing itself. Attending to the ‘how’ is a timely reminder.

    Still on the edge……..Ann Cooper Albright also figures for me as convenor of the recent SDHS/CORD conference in Athens – Cut and Paste: Dance Advocacy in the Age of Austerity. Ann brought her usual energy and generosity to pull together a fantastically nourishing conference. One panel focused on inclusion, with presenters offering some fascinating accounts of teaching initiatives and post-graduate research that focuses on dance and disability. But of all of us attending, representing the worldwide dance research community, disability was nowhere visible. We still have some distance to travel.

    Marginal to mainstream……. Alice Fox and Hannah Macpherson recently launched their beautiful new book, Inclusive Arts Practice and Research at Tate Modern. Apart from a celebration of a book that skilfully weaves together theory with the voices/images and reflections of disabled artists, it showed that Inclusive Arts has absolute right to be featured in one of our leading cultural institutions that is primarily concerned with promoting the best in contemporary art.

  • Mainstream and marginal: have we progressed in the last decade plus? By Charlotte Waelde

    In 2003 Paul Anthony Darke penned a highly informative chapter [1] about Disability Arts in which he explained the philosophy behind the movement. As elucidated by Darke, ‘Disability Art used art to identify and reveal how ‘cultural forms and practices do not simply reflect an already given social work but, rather, play a constitutive role in the construction of that world’’ . Throughout the chapter Darke argues that Disability Arts has been both mainstreamed and marginalised. It has been mainstreamed through the assimilation of Disability Art into the establishment by way of, for example, traditional training programmes (in which Disability Arts does not feature); and it has been marginalised such that the majority of Disability Artists ‘wander from one small commission to another, filling the void with equal opportunities training or audience development initiatives…’.

    While the dancers and choreographers who we have worked with during the currency of our project don’t necessarily identify with the philosophy underpinning Disability Arts, one of the key messages that has emerged from our symposia in 2013 and 2014, is that there is frustration within the community that questions around exclusion, otherness, difference, invisibility, and disability aesthetics are repeatedly asked (and have been for the past decade) without significant movement. There is a sense now, however, that the community is at a ‘tipping point’, a point at which these questions can be put in the past and the dance can move into a new phase; validated and embraced within the cultural ecosystem on an equal footing with other dances and dancers. However there is also a sense that it has been at this tipping point for years. There is, in other words, both a sense of anticipation, that it is possible to move forwards, but also a sense of frustration, that the means for actually doing so remain elusive.

    One of our current plans to take the work that we have been doing forwards has been to develop ideas for the filming of a documentary that we hope will respond to this frustration. It is our contention that the absence of disabled dance from our memory institutions is a contributory factor to the repetitive nature of the discourse: there is a need constantly to revisit these same issues precisely because there is no memory of them. The focus of the documentary will be on our dance partners’ at work: in the studio, in rehearsal and making work together, resulting in an art-documentary rather than a public information film. The intention is to raise awareness of how disabled dancers and choreographers need to think about organising their working day dealing with every day matters such as getting to work, navigating through the rehearsal space, and negotiating with facilitators such as sign language specialists (all of which have been raised by our project participants as issues). Woven into this story will be interviews that will articulate the policy frameworks applicable to, and the practical conditions within, our memory institutions that support a work becoming part of our ‘formal’ cultural heritage. Our aim is then to show this film at two venues; one in Scotland and one in England and have an associated round-table high level policy-maker discussion event to debate the policy issues that have been raised in our project.

    Let me, at this point, take the reader back to Darke’s chapter. One of the points that Darke makes about both mainstreaming and marginalisation is as follows: ‘As a result of existing art hierarchies, Disability Art events, exhibitions and performances are invariably marginalised as art per se or held purely as education-based events’. When we asked a Scottish mainstream venue if they would be interested in hosting our event the response was: (a) perhaps you should think of a dance studio (thus inevitably keeping the audience limited to those who are (already) interested in dance); or (b) if that did not work, re-approach the venue but do so through their person responsible for education.

    Darke’s chapter was written in 2003; we are now in 2015. It is thus for significantly more than a decade that the same barriers have been erected against the penetration of dance made by our colleagues within the ‘arts establishment’. It is particularly saddening that this has arisen in Scotland. Our dance collaborators have almost without exception said how welcoming Scotland is to artists with disabilities, to the extent that they consider themselves not as ‘disabled dance artists’ but as dance artists. Further, it is notable that one of the people who has so far agreed in principle to participate in the round-table debate is Janet Archer, CEO of Creative Scotland.

    [1] ‘Now I Know Why Disability Art is Drowning in the River Lethe (with thanks to Pierre Bourdieu)’ in Disability, Culture and Identity Sheila Riddell & Nick Watson Pearson eds. 2003.
    citing Bowler A ‘Methodological dilemmas in the sociology of art’ in Crane, D (ed) The Sociology of Culture, Blackwell, Oxford 1994.

  • Dance and Cultural Heritage. By Charlotte Waelde.

    In her blog post of 21 May for the Guardian, ‘Stepping out of the past: modern dance’s heritage debate', Judith Mackrell reported on arguments made at a panel discussion held by Rambert to explore issues around if and how contemporary dance should become a part of our cultural heritage. Some choreographers and dancers it seems are adamantly opposed to the capture and preservation of dance: dance is ‘of the present moment’; its ‘slippery’ nature resists commodification; and a slavish approach to reproducing the past could lead to a sacrifice of effectiveness of the work and of its integrity. For some the mere mention of the word ‘heritage’ conjures up images of ‘crumbling castles’. For others, safeguarding our dance heritage is as important as safeguarding classics from music, art and literature, although it is recognised that there are significant practical and theoretical challenges.

    These are questions and issues that have arisen during the course of our research for our InVisible Difference project, but there is much less of a reticence to embrace contemporary dance made and performed by our project collaborators – including Caroline Bowditch and Claire Cunningham – as a part of our cultural heritage. Why might that be? Part of the answer lies in the same reasoning that Farooq Chaudhry uses to scorn the relevance of heritage to dance: that we would dismiss and misinterpret works being created now if we cling to the classics of the past which bring with them traditional ideas of beauty and meaning. It is precisely these traditional notions of beauty and meaning that stand as high impediments to an informed public appreciation of the work made by our collaborators. But the impediments do not arise because of the presence of traditional forms of dance within our cultural heritage institutions. We would rather argue that it is the absence from our memory institutions of almost any form of dance made and performed by dancers with disabilities that is a root cause. That absence means that many of the pressing philosophical questions around notions of difference, of invisibility, and of otherness, that need to be addressed within disabled dance if it is to find its place within our cultural milieu are doomed to be constantly repeated: each new production, each dancer, and each generation has to confront these same questions because we have not learned from our past. When disabled dance secures a place within our cultural heritage we believe that this will help the debate to move on from its current obsession, to a focus on the virtuosity (or otherwise) of the dance.

    How it can become part of our cultural heritage is a different and challenging question particularly when our memory institutions are mostly concerned with tangible objects rather than intangible performances. We are hoping to expose the processes that could lead to disabled dance performance becoming part of our cultural heritage in a project for which we are seeking follow-on funding. Watch this space!
  • The UK General Election and the Future of Disabled Artists Part 2. By Kate Marsh

    Following the recent election, like many of my peers and colleagues I have felt a genuine anxiety about the future of many aspects of my life and work. As an artist, a parent and a person with a disability, things do not look rosy.

    Along with much of the commentary emerging in the media and on social network sites, one headline caught my eye, and then it caught my eye again and again, due to its rapid sharing throughout my own online and ‘real’ communities of artists, dancers, (disabled and non-disabled.) It was clear that this particular post-election story was a cause of real concern.

    The news in question was the announcement that just hours after the votes had been counted, the department for work and pension (DWP) are proposing further cuts to the access to work programme.

    Personally I have not benefited from the access to work scheme, but a significant number of individuals and organisations I have worked with have. These are people whose contribution to the arts has had a profound impact on my own experience of dance.

    In my view access to work and programmes like it should be the silent supporting framework behind these brilliant creative individuals enabling them to do what they do best, teach, perform, direct, choreograph, produce the list goes on. Instead frequent cuts have meant that the application process is an arduous task of hoop jumping, form filling and long frustrating telephone calls. It seems to be a system that reduces individuals to their impairment alone and dismisses their creativity, drive and experience in their field.

    These proposed cuts are very worrying to me as a disabled dancer. They are also pertinent to me as I approach the final stage of my PhD research. I have spent the last two years, talking to, watching, researching and reading about disabled dance artists. I have drunk tequila absorbed in a love story about Frida Kahlo, I have spat my tea out laughing at monologues about biscuits, I have immersed myself in the making of a solo that moves me every time I watch it. I have been inspired by the speeches and writings of so many disabled artists. All these are important things, they are essential things, not just to me, not even just for disabled artists, or people with disabilities, but to everyone.
    These cuts have the potential to malign these disabled artists. Without the structures to support people with disabilities to produce this work it will become harder and harder to undertake and maintain the practicalities of the creative process.

    I read yesterday a comment in response to the election results, that as artists we shouldn’t ‘complain’ about the impending further marginalisation of the arts in our society, because artists have always struggled, it is the struggle that makes us do what we do. Whilst there is some truth in this, throughout history some great work has evolved from great oppression. In light of these cuts, should we really stop complaining when these ‘challenges’ are the difference between being able to get to your place of work or not, or being able to communicate with your colleagues or not?