Claire Cunningham: Is dance without disabled performers actually… a bit boring?

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Claire Cunningham started the discussion on Disability and Feminism at the WOW Festival with her speech below. Many many thanks to her for allowing us to publish it here.

Claire Cunningham

Claire Cunningham (photo from WOW website)

I am one of those individuals – whom perhaps some of the panel may despair of! I don’t know… That doesn’t really know what the identity of being a woman means for me. I think for me it has been quite eclipsed – in my dealings with others, but perhaps more so in my view of myself, with my identity of being a disabled person. And a disabled artist. And that is partly my own fault because of my fascination with what I have felt that disability that offers to my work. But that is also because I have went on a quite significant journey with that aspect of my identity, and I am not sure that I have gone on the same one yet with regard to being a woman.

Being here – and having been present at Women of the World festival in the last couple of years, definitely are part of that process for me, and of raising awareness in me that there are aspects of my being that I have quite purposely ignored and not dealt with. And like my shifting awareness around disability its a journey taken once you have found the people who shine a light on the subtle difficulties, and differences and behaviours that discrimination creates that you just have not noticed most of your life, because you didn’t know any other way.   I grew up just as blinkered about what it meant, or looked like, to be a woman, as I did about what it meant to be disabled.

I’m going to talk specifically about my journey regarding my perspective on disability, but I know it is just as applicable to viewing myself as a woman. But I just don’t think, if I’m honest, that I’ve convinced myself as much yet on that front. I think there is more de-programming I need to do on myself in that regard. Being here is part of that for me. Deprogramme old and imbedded notions of womanhood and soak up the endless possibilities of what it could mean…

I grew up not wanting to be disabled. I went to ‘mainstream’ schools and was the only child in those schools that had a visible impairment, a physical impairment related to Osteoporosis, that meant when I turned 14 I had to start using crutches. I kept thinking I would be off them in 6 weeks, next month, a few months, next year….its been 24 years….

I hated my crutches. With a passion. I became convinced – in those awful teenage years -that the crutches, and my physicality meant I was repulsive. I felt very ‘other’.

So I grew up with no role models – no disabled people to show me that it was ok to be disabled. Just the typical western media filled with images of bodies that were non-disabled. This was the ideal. This is how you are supposed to look. Portrayals I did see of disabled people – either they were objects of pity. To be helped. Or movie villains – people who had acquired an impairment and were so bitter about it they would therefore blow up the world as revenge, or alternatively kill themselves at the prospect of living as a disabled person.

So someone no-one wanted to be.

On being asked “Whats wrong with you?” I didn’t think twice to tell people what my medical diagnosis was. On being offered the prayers of strangers who wanted to pray that I would be healed… I didn’t question this. I was imbued from all sides with the idea – not consciously – that it would be preferable to not be in my state. That of course I would want to be ‘fixed’. That there was, naturally, something wrong with me. Or indeed, I was ‘unnatural’….

I did want to be fixed.

Then in 2005 I had an epiphany. My road to Damascus moment. I discovered dance. I didn’t mean to. It was an accident, I had never intended to dance. I had always thought dance was for-as I would have referred to them at that time – the ‘able-bodied’. Superfit people. People who could move really quickly, and jump and had straight pointy legs and straight pointy arms…clean lines. That’s not my body.

But what I began to see, was that the way my body had developed and evolved – through using the crutches meant it had great strength, and very specific strength. By that time I had been using the crutches for 14 years. My body had also grown certain skills and knowledge – it understood – without me thinking about it, how the crutches were weighted, how my weight was positioned on them, how to manipulate this skillfully, how to dance with them.

I discovered that giving my crutches to young, super-fit non-disabled professional dancers – they actually couldn’t do what I could do.

I began to accept that my use of crutches was offering me opportunity – as an artist, And in recognizing this I began to take on the identity of being a disabled person for myself, as opposed to being identified by others. I began to acknowledge that it shaped my work literally, but also that my lived experience of being disabled meant that I had a unique perspective on things and this was something I began to treasure.

Working in dance brought me into a world where the body is at the centre, its the tool of the artform, and it was now all about letting people see my body and how it moved. Therefore what also came with that was discussions around the aesthetics of bodies. Dance is, to me, the most body fascist of all arts and there is indeed the tradition that only young, superfit, non-disabled (and in this country still predominantly white) bodies are mostly what is seen onstage. Personally I just find this rather boring. My interest has been to push the notion that disabled bodies are not ‘wrong’ but rather different, therefore present more interesting, unexplored possibilities for movement. More colours on the palette you might say.

I told a leading national (non-disabled) dance company that I honestly wasn’t that interested in choreographing for them -‘You all kinda look the same to me…”, I told them. These young dancers were horrified… “but you cant say that! That’s discrimination!”

Yes. Yes it is discrimination. Of course I don’t truly mean it, but I am not choosing that quite controversial –and loaded- phrase by accident. It is fascinating to me to see the reaction it provokes. To suddenly see people who have assumed that they are in a better position than you, who think they would not want to be you, presented with the idea that perhaps I would not want to be them. Their bodies are not my ideal…

Now I’m not saying being disabled is a wonderful or easy thing. I don’t in any way mean to underplay or be flippant about the experience of those who have much more limiting or debilitating medical conditions than me, and who do face huge problems in terms of discrimination or lack of opportunity. But I do know many disabled people that have said openly to me that they would not want to be otherwise. Of course that is not true of everyone, but I feel that if we can start to shift the way disability is viewed, to a more acceptable, positive and valid experience, part of the diversity of humanity rather than a mistake, then it will only help everyone.

The natural progress of the human body as it ages is to develop impairments. Its a loss and therefore people grieve it….but it is natural. And as long as we treat disability as being something inferior, or shameful, we make it harder for everyone. This may seem a little flippant to some but -who doesn’t know a grandparent or ageing parent who is losing their hearing or developing difficulty walking but refuses to get a hearing aid, to get a walking stick…? I believe that the shame around disability is very much linked to this. The idea that the state of disability is inferior and undesirable reinforces this.

Disability, for me, is a state of existence, a way of being in the world. It is related to having a medical condition, and to how I am treated in the world, and the perspective that gives me- but it is not everything that defines me. I have and can have many identities -I’m a human being. I’m Scottish. I’m short. I’m white. I’m an artist. I’m a European. I’m an aunt. I’m single. I’m a homeowner. I’m a daughter. I’m a thirty-something. I’m a sister…. I’m a woman….

And I’m disabled. I would not want to not be disabled. I would not be the person I am. No offence to any of you out there who’s not disabled, I’m sure you’re great, I really wouldn’t want to be you….

I’m doing fine now….

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