I dance because I can

Wheelchair-using dancer describes the potential of the art form to transcend physical and cultural barriers

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.

In the studio, I listen carefully, trying to learn what my body teaches. Being on stage is sometimes surreal. For one brief evening, I am connected to several hundred people at once. We are in a conversation that frequently has no words. I cannot see them, but I can feel them. Sometimes, I know we are breathing together.

The dance is in full swing. Twenty minutes into it, I slide from my stomach into the seat of my wheelchair. Focused on Laurel, I slip one hand underneath my butt and pull out the strap that secures the chair to me. It makes a deeply satisfying noise as the Velcro unfolds. She flirts; I flirt right back. We are two disabled women investigating what it might mean to build an interracial queer relationship. The act of strapping oneself into a chair is so familiar to those who are or who know wheelchair users. For the select few who love a wheelchair user, the sound of that Velcro may well recall moments of intimacy. It is such a cultural moment. Resonant. Political. And, I hope, beautiful. I did not have to tell Michael how to light this moment. Michael is also a wheelchair user: He knows. I can feel the way he holds us in his light. It is sexy. Intimate. He picks up my arm, the strap. Michael is dancing right there with us.

Of course, non-disabled people appreciate this moment. But what it actually means to see and feel strapping on stage, to hear and recognise the sound of Velcro unfurling is different, more complex, for those of us in the disability community. For some, the choice to strap publicly was controversial, too private to show on stage; for others, it was revelatory, a moment of celebration. Strapping and intimacy became a regular aspect of post-show conversations. What does it mean to show a sex scene that happens out of our chairs? What are the politics of showing a sex scene in our chairs?


Culturally, the United States is no longer in an "art for art's sake" moment. Even though we do not always know what change looks like, we claim meaningful relationships between art and social justice, particularly when the artist is from a socially minoritised or stigmatised group. Art by a disabled artist, for example, is often seen as being tied to the artist's disability status: The art either recognises 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 non-disabled people about disability rights and etiquette, or to nudge people to think differently about disability and equity in the world. This is limiting.

Linking art so directly to social change can detrimentally tie cultural production to broad societal narratives, making it hard for everyone to understand art outside the lines of those stories. Culturally specific works like disability art can have meaning in a number of different realms. As people invested in nuance and complexity, we owe it to ourselves and the creators of the work to educate ourselves in the traditions and legacies of the community so we can appreciate the work outside the narrowness of such framings.

"Descent" takes place on an architectural, sculptural set we call the ramp. It is a ramp like no other. Unlike the access ramps that enable wheelchair users to avoid stairs, this ramp is beautiful. It is visually inviting; pushing up its surfaces is a pleasure-filled challenge. When we roll down with our hands off our wheels, we and our chairs turn automatically, spinning either out of control into the ground or if we and they are perfectly balanced, turning almost endlessly. The ramp was designed by 12 students at Olin College for a class co-taught by Sara Hendren and Yevgeniya Zastavker. Under the regulations of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), the specifications for an ideal wheelchair access ramp are quite clear, as are the defining parameters of maximum gradient, minimum width, appropriate materials, and so on. The codes make no mention of what it might feel like to use these ramps; they focus on what it takes to enter a building safely. Though perfectly usable and necessary, I see these designs as examples of #rampfail. Disabled people want more than access.

The scholar and activist Simi Linton describes the raw pleasure of rolling down hills in a manual wheelchair. Her words encapsulate the experience of so many ramp users. With the support of the college, the Olin students designed the "Descent" ramp for beauty and for the maximum potential of pleasurable wheeled movement. The resulting set re-conceptualises our understanding of what ramps can be; this ramp is art. As Rosemarie Garland-Thomson puts it, the ramp is "aesthetically non-compliant" with the ADA.

The creaking plywood of the ramp and skidding sounds of our tyres on its surface support me as I stretch out my hands to Laurel. Her body pushes into mine with just enough momentum that, hands intertwined, we shoot towards the edge of the ramp. The ramp catches us and carries us over to the other side and then we drift from side to side down the ramp; we are held in Michael's light, the audience breathes softly with us, the music fades, and the sounds of the ramp fill the theatre until we can move no more. The ramp exhales into silence; the first half closes as the theatre goes dark.

Disability culture and aesthetics are bound up with access, but not in the sense elucidated in the law. We are accustomed to thinking of accessibility as being about an accommodation that bridges the gap between the disabled and the non-disabled worlds. But activists like Mia Mingus and disability justice communities like the Sins Invalid collective emphasise access as a process and a way of creating connection between disabled people, a way of knowing and being in the world.

Members of the disability community have been involved in all aspects of the show, from pre-show communications and training, to front-of-house staffing, to an upcoming seminar. People have flown in from across the country to share in this event. The audience feels like family, and we have done our best to welcome them, as opposed to accommodate them - the language used to describe accessibility in the law. We did not get it all right; I know that. But access is also about the commitment to learn and be with each other differently. Next time, we will learn more.

The music crescendos. From the top of the ramp, I watch as Laurel pushes at top speed part way down the slope. She flings herself at the peak. Before I even fully realise it, my chair is in motion. I'm heading towards her; I throw my arms out, land on top of her, and grab the peak. My heart is thudding; Michael flashes the lights; Laurel shifts; we hang there, together.


 • Alice Sheppard is a dancer and choreographer.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 10, 2019, with the headline 'I dance because I can'. Print Edition | Subscribe