My name is Dawn States and I am a third year MFA student in dance at Temple University. I am happy to announce that I just passed my thesis defense and that I was also able to complete my thesis concert before these difficult times. My thesis project focused on dance and disability, particularly the exploration of ballet and physical disability. I also implemented progressive pedagogy into my approach of creating the dances for the thesis concert.
Throughout this experience I was mostly concerned with the burden of representation. I know that as a person with a disability, we often are not portrayed in the world in a flattering way. I also had to consider the other dancers in my work and make sure that their needs were being met and that they were being represented fairly and accurately. Most of the time people with disabilities are used to inspire, teach a lesson or make people feel better about their lives. These tropes and stereotypes were something that I wanted to avoid.
I worked through that by entering a process of progressive pedagogy with my dancers. Part of progressive pedagogy is having complete trust in the people you are working with. Another part is asking them to take ownership and participate in the creation. By allowing my work to be informed by the dancers, it also opened the space for better representation and for the dancers to add their personal imprint on the work.
From this experience, I learned the power of community and vulnerability. I was open with my story in this process and found support in being open and sharing. All the worry, stress and isolation I felt before this process was held and witnessed by the dancers I worked with and my community. My dancers and I talked to each other, breathed together, worked through things with each other and assisted each other throughout this process. I was honored to work with them all and included their feedback in every stage of this process, even the end thesis defense.
I think the biggest thing I took out of this whole experience was the possibility of creation leading to transformation. Some tangible ways I saw this take place were in having accessibility information added to every postcard and flyer that the dance department at Temple University produces starting with my concert and moving forward. Having audio description and ASL at the concert was also another change. My dancers and I even altered how we entered the space, which was from the front of the house in a procession because the traditional method of entering from the back of the theater is inaccessible. I think having the people dancing in my thesis that I did was also a tangible transformation and I hope causes more change in the way people with disabilities, especially in dance, are viewed.
Creating a thesis concert can be a consuming experience and I would just like to share a few considerations for those moving into this phase of their creative process. Firstly, remember you are human and you are working with other humans to make your vision on the stage. Be kind. Take moments to pause and breath where possible throughout this experience. Notice the experience and be present for it. Reach out to your community. It is alright to ask for help. When I was uncertain how to achieve particular things or missing a resource, my community was available to support me. Conversely, this connection with your community will strengthen and inform your work.
Lastly, I urge you to consider making your space more inclusive and accessible. Many people with disabilities would love to access or be part of artistic endeavors, but are often not thought of or included. Please consider having an ASL interpreter, audio description, closed captions and accessibility information as part of your next performance. The Temple Institute on Disabilities is a wonderful resource for connecting with these services. Being a movement artist is a unique responsibility. Take the time to determine what kind of impact you want to have and follow that connection through in your work, for as dancers and artists I believe we occupy an integral space in the world to create social transformation.