Feature

DanceAbility: Dance with
me

Karen Daly: Karen Daly (left) and workshop participants at DanceAbility public workshop at Yogyakarta State University. (Courtesy of US Embassy)
Karen Daly: Karen Daly (left) and workshop participants at DanceAbility public workshop at Yogyakarta State University. (Courtesy of US Embassy)

Disability is a separatist mind-set and has nothing to do with physical limitations, contends contemporary dancer and founder of DanceAbility, Alito Alessi.

There are four people on stage, two in wheelchairs. There is no music, but they are moving, eyes trained on one another.

Eli, a student at Pendidikan Indonesia University, maneuvers her wheelchair to the back of the stage, swiveling to face the audience.

Alessi raises both arms above his head, knees bent and stops. His dance partner, Karen Daly, rolls over on the floor; then Dera, an art therapist who works with autistic children, extends both arms from her side and scurries on tiptoe to crouch behind Karen’s wheelchair. They continue in this fashion for about two minutes, taking turns to perform spontaneous movements.

This is dance in its basest form: “cause and effect” or “action and response”, as Alessi phrases it.

Awareness of one’s surroundings is often the first faculty to decline when a person becomes disabled; by imposition of the disability itself or the attending emotional withdrawal.

The DanceAbility method, however, demands extroversion to, as a dancer, calibrate your movement in correspondence to those around you.

“I devised a method based on four principles. The first principle is called ‘Sensation’,” explains Alessi.

“So, let’s all do a very simple thing to experience what sensation is. Each person move one part of your body and put your attention to the feeling of that movement.”

Most audience members waggled their fingers or raised one foot. The simplicity of the exercise may baffle a non-dancer, but mixed-abilities dance is, by default, improvisational dance — despite choreography — to accommodate dancers of reduced mobility whose bodies are not always able to replicate the same sequences in a dance routine.

Alito Alessi (left)and Karen Daly.

Alito Alessi (left)and Karen Daly. (Courtesy of @america team)
This first step, said Alessi, is “not to make some idea of a movement, but to feel the movement you’re making. The language of the body does not need to be understood”.

“Relationship”, “Time” and “Design” are the DanceAbility method’s other three underlying principles.

“If you’re dancing with another person, you’re feeling your own body and you’re speaking to another person non-verbally by using your body. That makes the second principle,” said Alessi.

“Time”, the third principle, refers to the speed of the movement, which, Alessi sternly reminds the audience, is relative.

“Each person has their own sense of time. Some people move like this,” demonstrating a tortoise’s pace of walking. “For some people, this is stillness,” enacting an epileptic twitch.

Finally, “Design” refers to choreography, but there’s an important caveat: “How could we, all of us in this room,” Alessi said, gesturing to those who were wheelchair-bound, “dance together so that everybody could be involved and that nobody says ‘I cannot do that’?”

Inclusive dance is a concept that is simple and complicated all at once. In 1987, Alessi held his first workshop, titled “Dance for Anybody”. The event drew 100 people of mixed abilities and Alessi saw potential for change if this small-scale radicalization, that of people with and without disabilities dancing together, could be magnified tenfold, even one-hundredfold.

He and his then dance partner, Karen Nelson, created the Joint Forces Dance Company (JFDC), the goal of which was to open the eyes of the nation and ultimately, the world.

Nelson eventually left the company, but in the early 1990s, dancer Karen Daly met Alessi at one of his workshops and was inspired to become a DanceAbility teacher. Daly is an amputee whose right leg, once ravaged by bone cancer, was removed when she was 11.

Watching a partially paralyzed man perform a trapeze dance with an able-bodied partner galvanized Daly, then in her 40s, to seek dance classes.

“I just felt so moved by how courageous he was to show himself so totally and fully and [to] be so open that I cried for the whole performance,” says Daly, who admits to struggling for years to accept the loss of her limb.

“Then I went back the next night and I cried again, and then after that I just said, ‘I have to find dance classes’.”

Before that, Daly had worn a wooden leg for about twenty years because she felt pressured to “look normal”.

“I gave that up because I got interested in skiing and I met all these other people who had one leg and they didn’t wear prostheses or wooden legs; they just had their regular bodies and they didn’t care if people saw them the way they were,” said Daly.

Once certified as a DanceAbility instructor, Daly began to tour with DanceAbility, visiting schools across the United States, holding countrywide workshops and performances throughout North, Central and South America, Europe and Asia — while keeping her day job as a nurse assisting patients with mental problems.

Over the course of his 30-year career, Alessi claims to have performed for nearly 1 million children. The piece that most lends itself to youthful audiences is the “TangoTangle”, in which Alessi, wearing roller blades, dances with Emery Blackwell, a dancer, choreographer, musician, composer and teacher.

Cerebral palsy has gnarled Blackwell’s wrists inward and his fingers seem melded together; his speech is garbled and he can only move his wheelchair in reverse by pushing with his left foot.

When the music begins, Blackwell and Alessi are at opposite ends of the stage, shooting one another furtive looks, glancing away each time their eyes lock.
(Courtesy of @america team)

Then Blackwell moves out of the shadow, and Alessi, looking up, rises from his chair and follows like a hopeful suitor. They glide along the stage, joining hands, then parting, in an approach-and-retreat analogy of courtship.

Toward the end of the dance, Blackwell stumbles out of his wheelchair, managing to stand relatively upright for about four seconds, and crumples to his knees on the floor.

“He can’t brush his teeth, he can’t feed himself, he can’t dress himself. He can’t go to the bathroom, he can’t stand up,” Alessi said in an interview with The Jakarta Post.

“So, those are a lot of obstacles and yet he is a professional dancer and a professional dance teacher traveling around the world making a living. That’s pretty exemplary in my mind.”

Having been selected as Arts Envoys by the US State Department, Daly and Alessi are currently on a tour across Asia. Their itinerary involves providing DanceAbility training at dance schools in Yogyakarta, Mongolia and the Philippines throughout April and May as a show-rather-than-tell perpetuation of mixed abilities dance.

“Society is disabled, that’s why it’s difficult for you. For me also,” Alessi said, addressing the room at large.

“The limitations that come with our inabilities to relate are bad for all of us. This work is not to do something nice for the disabled people. The reality is I need to know you. We need able-bodied people and disabled people,” he continued.

“The focus of this work is about creating possibilities of our exchange so that we can teach society because we are the ones who are going to do it.”

Alessi enunciates slowly, laboring each syllable as if speaking to a class of kindergarteners, but without condescending intent. To him, it is simple: dance is an even playing field, and a crutch, wheelchair, eye patch or slur does not diminish the ability to learn, nor the human yearning to belong.

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