Do You Love to Dance?

Do You Love to Dance?

Agnes De Mille, a 20th century dancer and choreographer, said: “To dance is to be out of yourself. Larger, more beautiful, more powerful.” What do you think about that?

Do you enjoy dancing? Have you ever felt more powerful or free when dancing?

In “I Dance Because I Can,” Alice Sheppard, a choreographer, dancer and wheelchair user, writes about the power and freedom that come from dancing:

My hands are cold, clammy. They always are when I’m nervous. And I’m nervous, all right. My heart is pounding, too.

I have about 30 seconds to settle myself before I swing my right leg up onto the top surface of our ramp stage set, pull hard on the metal drawer handles that are affixed to its edges, and slide up on my stomach into the opening position of the dance. I take a deep breath, close my eyes; the cold surface squeaks as I slide on it. I count another 45 seconds or so before the music starts.

The dance is called “DESCENT,” and it is a creation of the collective Kinetic Light. Over the course of the next hour, I will launch my body up, down and around the curvaceous plywood structure of our set. Bathed in the stunning projections of our lighting, video and projection designer, Michael Maag, I will sit on its peak, dive into its underworld and join my dance partner and collaborator, Laurel Lawson, as we move from wheelchair to floor, platform to valley, pushing, pulling, intertwining ourselves until the final moment when together we leap for the edge.

I was not supposed to be a dancer; I grew up playing music and dreaming of working in an orchestra. I pivoted at the last minute, studied languages, went to graduate school, became a professor, and never looked back at the arts until I saw the dancer Homer Avila perform at a conference on disability studies in 2004. We spoke after the show. At the time, I could not have guessed the effect his words would have on me. I somewhat tipsily accepted his dare to take a dance class. I did not know that Homer would soon be dead and that his words would ignite a curiosity that would become a fiery passion for dance. Two years later, I resigned from my academic job and began to train as a dancer.

Even now, nearly 15 years later, people often ask why I dance. I tell them because of the way it feels, because of the pleasure, because I can. Mostly, though, these answers land awkwardly. I see my interlocutor soften. Sometimes, their internal/external filter fails: Of course, someone with your limitations must get enjoyment from moving; it must feel good, considering; movement probably even helps, right? Therapy?

None of this is the case. Dance is often more injurious than therapeutic. I do not work from a deficit-based understanding of my body. But it is true that I enjoy it. Immensely. I have fallen in love with stretching, pushing, sweating. With the very effort of moving. I have fallen in love with dancing: Its power and freedom are like nothing else I know.

Students, read the entire article, then tell us:

— Do you like to dance? Why or why not? In what settings do you feel most comfortable dancing? Do you ever experience the qualities Ms. Sheppard describes: power, freedom, pleasure or connection?

— Do you consider yourself to be a good dancer? Would you rather be dancing or watching others dance? Why?

— What are your reactions to Ms. Sheppard’s Opinion essay? Did anything touch, move or surprise you? Does it change your appreciation of dance? The human body? The human experience?

— What are your favorite forms of dance — hip-hop, tap, ballet, flamenco or salsa, for example? What memorable performances have you seen, whether live or online?

— The author says:

Art by a disabled artist, for example, is often seen as being tied to the artist’s disability status: The art either recognizes a presumed triumph over that status or responds to the assumed tribulations of disabled daily life. Sometimes, counter to the artist’s actual focus, audiences assume that the artist’s work is intended to educate nondisabled people about disability rights and etiquette, or to nudge people to think differently about disability and equity in the world. This is limiting.

What does she mean by the statement? Do you agree? What is the relationship between art, the artist and their identity? In what ways is it limiting to be considered a disabled artist — or a black, gay or Jewish one? Can it also be empowering?

— What meaning do you get from the artist’s description of her piece “DESCENT?” Would you want to see it?

Students 13 and older are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.