Wheelchair Dance at UW-Whitewater
©2016 Harold W. Thorpe and Karyn Saemann
It’s an unusually warm evening in early November 2016.
UW-Whitewater Dance Professor Barbara Grubel and two-dozen other dance students and dance teachers from across Wisconsin are seated in a circle, on the floor, in a rehearsal space adjacent to the university’s Young Auditorium.
Bright fall foliage tints a campus courtyard that’s visible through tall windows behind them.
They’re introducing themselves to members of AXIS Dance Company, a physically integrated dance company from Oakland, California, whose members are about to lead them through a two-day teacher training class.
AXIS Dance Company, founded in 1987 and now internationally known for bringing disabled and non-disabled dancers together on stage, and breaking other social barriers, had performed to a full house at UW-Whitewater the evening before.
Leading the workshop are Marc Brew, a guest artistic director and choreographer for AXIS, who uses a wheelchair and is gay; Julie Crothers, a company dancer who is missing a lower arm; James Alarcon-Bowen, a new company member who is African American; and Kai Hazelwood, who is African American and bisexual.
Integrated dance, Crothers begins, is about more than bringing together people with and without physical disabilities. What about other, often marginalized groups? People in drag? The aging? They can dance, too – if taught in a way that works for them.
How do you that?
At her studio, “we’ve had to turn down students because we don’t have the capability to integrate our classes,” says one workshop participant.
Another participant, who’s studying occupational therapy, says she wants to learn how to incorporate dance into her work.
Crothers promises they will leave with “a lot of ideas that are totally incorporable in any setting.”
The teacher training class was part of a continuing, groundbreaking effort by UW-Whitewater to open its dance program to students with disabilities.
Three years ago, a student who uses a wheelchair unexpectedly signed up for a contemporary dance class Grubel was scheduled to teach. Grubel admits she was taken aback. She had a week’s notice to prepare.
“I went to our dean and said ‘We don’t have anybody trained for this. You’re asking too much.’”
With the university affirming the student’s legal right to enroll, Grubel quickly arranged for an aide, a senior “stand-up” dance student.
Ultimately, “it went fine,” Grubel said. “And it was an amazing experience for my (aide).”
“This provoked a conversation with the (university’s) Center for Students with Disabilities,” Grubel said. “I said ‘what if I offer a class specifically for students in wheelchairs, every other year?”
Grubel and a colleague flew to Cleveland, to learn from Dancing Wheels, a physically integrated dance company and school, how to teach wheelchair dance.
And in the fall of 2015, three students in wheelchairs and a dozen other, curious stand-up dancers, enrolled in UW-Whitewater’s first-ever contemporary wheelchair dance class.
It broke a barrier not only at UW-Whitewater, but in the broader University of Wisconsin System. This is believed to be the first time a for-credit wheelchair dance class has been offered at any UW campus; telephone calls around the state appeared to affirm that.
Recalling those first months, Grubel chokes up.
“I had danced professionally for twenty years, and taught, all over the world. I thought I had done it all. Then I was handed this.”
The task felt overwhelming.
“I felt like I didn’t know what I was doing. I would go up to my office and shut the door and cry,” she recalls. “I didn’t want to fail.”
She worried about asking too much of her sitting dancers.
“I said ‘I have to trust that you are going to tell me when I am pushing you toward something that is too far, and we will further adapt it,” she recalls.
A physical therapist, and the dancers themselves, encouraged her to challenge them. Soon, she gained confidence.
“I quickly realized that these students knew more about their bodies than I ever could,” Grubel said.
Ultimately, her wheelchair dancers didn’t just succeed – they stepped up.
All of the class’ “standing dancers” were required to spend a week of the semester taking the class “sitting” in one of two specially designed wheelchairs purchased by the university. Her sitting dancers came to the aid of classmates struggling to maneuver in the chairs.
“They would come over and say ‘no, do it this way,’” Grubel recalls. “I stood back and saw their empowerment. It was a very enlightening moment, absolutely phenomenal.”
The following semester, eight dancers from that class — three sitting, five standing – plus an additional student, who was legally blind, collaborated to choreograph a piece for an end-of-the-year concert.
They did two performances, one at Whitewater High School, and one at the university. At both, “there was not a dry eye in the house. They got standing ovations,” Grubel recalls.
When she learned that AXIS Dance Company was coming to campus in November, Grubel approached the director of Young Auditorium, about arranging a teacher training class.
Ultimately, the university’s College of Arts and Communication paid AXIS Dance Company to put on the two-day teacher training class.
The first evening, through improvisation exercise, attendees were challenged to simply connect with each other through eye contact and body language. While they were given broad direction – mill about the room, fill the negative space, silently lure away someone else’s partner – there were no prescribed steps or specific ways they had to move.
“This is NOT about how to dance with someone in a wheelchair. It’s just about how to dance together,” Brew instructed. “Dance as freedom, with options, doing it in a way that works for you.”
The following day, “in one exercise, I had to close my eyes as if I could not see,” Grubel recalls. Stepping out to touch a partner’s lower limb, “I said ‘I can feel your foot so I can see what I am doing.’”
Grubel found AXIS Dance Company’s approach to be “very different” from Dancing Wheels. “Both are very relevant, but different. We now have these two viewpoints, giving us more ideas for ways to do this in the future.”
UW-Whitewater will offer its wheelchair dance class again in the fall of 2017.
More: See dancers in action on the AXIS Dance Company YouTube channel.
Photos Courtesy, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater/Craig Schreiner photographer.