Re-imagined dance scenes challenging perceptions on disability to reach global audience
By Helen Annetts
What does a dancer look like? From a lithe ballerina on pointe to a twinkle-toed tap artist, ballroom waltzers to the tightest tango, so many of our perceptions around dancers are based on ‘perfect’ form and technique.
Yet a photographic exhibition of D/deaf, sight impaired and disabled people who dance, which has already thrilled more than 100,000 people in the UK and across the world is, thanks to new funding from digital commissioning body The Space, about to be put online, challenging these dancing stereotypes and raising debate on how non-disabled people view those who are disabled.
Launched four years ago, the 11 Million Reasons to Dance photographic exhibition, which features 20 memorable images by photographer Sean Goldthorpe working with disabled dance artists, has impressed audiences from the UK to Hong Kong, Korea, Spain, Croatia and Ukraine, delighting them with its iconoclastic reimagining of famous dance scenes from film.
Now the exhibition, originally commissioned by People Dancing and supported by Unlimited Impact, to celebrate the then 11 million people in the UK registered disabled*, is about to reach a global audience of millions when it’s presented, next month, on the People Dancing website.
The early success of the photography exhibition led to People Dancing securing Arts Council England funding for an 11 Million Reasons to Dance Strategic Touring Programme, promoting long-term engagement with D/deaf and disabled people as participants in dance programmes, as audiences for dance and as artists themselves.
Dance artist Laura Dajao, a wheel chair user who has forged a hip hop and contemporary style influenced by other dance forms like dancehall, waacking and locking, is featured (second left) in a scene inspired by ‘Cell Block Tango’, from Chicago. Laura, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2007, has trained and performed with East London Dance, Candoco, Gloucestershire Dance, Moxie Brawl, Casson & Friends and Stopgap Dance Company. She also performed with Bboy Mickael Marso Riviere in the People Dancing film, Adaption.
So what does a dancer look like to Laura? Her view is clear:
“When you feel movement and communicate something through dance – that’s what makes you a dancer; technique and style come later,” she says.
Inspired by The Blues Brothers, Chris Fonseca (left) reimagines a scene along with fellow dancer Jacob Riley-Moore and BSL Signer Stacey Green. Chris, who has a passion for Street Dance, was made profoundly D/deaf in both ears when he had meningitis at a very young age and wears a cochlear implant in one ear. Chris first got into dance when his auntie encouraged him to watch the classic 1984 dance movie ‘Breakin’.
What does a dancer look like from Chris’ perspective? While Chris can’t hear music, he can feel the beat’s vibration. He says he thinks of dance as a best friend: “To dance is a beautiful feeling; for me, dance is not an option – it’s who I am. It’s a gift from God.”
You can watch Chris featured here in a Smirnoff Ad.
“The 11 Million Reasons to Dance photography exhibition set out to make change and positively profile D/deaf and disabled people who dance,” said People Dancing Producer Louise Wildish.
“Through the success of the exhibition tour, and the work with venues and organisations through the Strategic Touring Programme, the exhibition has facilitated discussions and debates around inclusive dance, forged a programme of dance activity for, and with disabled people, commissioned new performances for touring, and provided training and development for a number of disabled dance artists,” she added.
“Sean Goldthorpe’s wonderful images have had an impact on many thousands of people all over the world and continue, under the 11 Million Reasons to Dance brand, to offer ways of changing our perceptions of disability and, above all, provide opportunities for disabled people to take part in dance.”
Photographer Sean Goldthorpe, who cites US photographer Gregory Crewdson as a major influence, used a 16×9 format to achieve a wide-screen, set-back feel that would have the scope to include a lot of action, yet keep the dancers centre stage.
“I didn’t want to have any crazy angles or effects that might detract from the dancers and their amazing ability to get past the physical challenges they face as disabled artists to achieve such high levels of artistic expression and skill,” said Sean.
“I think people will look at these images and smile, sense what a great time we all had making them and see disabled dance artists – and disabled people more generally – in a new and refreshing light.”
Fiona Morris, CEO and Creative Director for The Space said: “The Space is thrilled to be supporting the 11 Million Reasons to Dance project in extending the audience for the original photographic exhibition. Placing the images online will ensure the superb images are seen by greater numbers of people and continue to challenge traditional perceptions around ability, dance, form and technique.”
UPDATE 20 MARCH: Enhanced images from the 11 Million Reasons to Dance photography exhibition, as well as videos on the making of the exhibition, have just been posted on the People Dancing website. Take a look.
* Family Resource Survey 2011/12 (this figure rose to 13.3 million – 1 in 5 people – in 2015/16).