Physically Integrated Dance: “Let’s Figure It Out Together”
By Lisa Traiger
Douglas Scott has been called “a respected leader in modern dance” by Georgia governor Nathan Deal. He discovered dance upon entering Western Kentucky University to earn a B.F.A. in performing arts. After graduation, he moved to Atlanta, where he spent several seasons with the Ruth Mitchell Dance Company, performing works by Ruth Mitchell, Ron Cunningham, Monica Levy and Sal Aiello. Douglas has furthered his education in physically integrated dance by attending workshops conducted by Dancing Wheels (Cleveland, Ohio), AXIS Dance Company (Oakland, Calif.), and Jurg Koch (Seattle, Wash.). He has attended and presented at national symposia in New York City, Los Angeles, and Tampa sharing best practices in the field. Currently, Douglas is the national co-chair of the Dance/USA Deaf and Disability Affinity Group. A respected teacher for more than 30 years, Douglas has extensive experience in teaching classes and workshops in modern and modern-based physically integrated dance to numerous schools, organizations, and conferences locally, nationally, and internationally, most recently in Spain and Germany. In 2014, he was honored by Governor and Mrs. Nathan Deal with the prestigious Governor’s Awards for the Arts and Humanities. He was cited for expanding “the definition and reach of modern dance by creating opportunities for dancers with and without disabilities . . . not only in the local Atlanta community, but throughout the State of Georgia, the United States and internationally.”
Dance/USA: You grew up in Kentucky. Is that where you started dancing?
Douglas Scott: I came to dancing late due to the cultural perceptions about boys and dance. It just wasn’t an option in Kentucky. I grew up in Southeast Kentucky, a small town, population 4,000. There was no studio in town, and I lived outside of town actually. We did have a very active drama class in my high school and I was very involved in that. I was also the field commander of the marching band. I did have a love of performing.
I went to Western Kentucky University to get a BFA in performing arts with a concentration in theater. Dance was required and that’s where I fell in love with movement and dance. I took every dance class offered.
D/USA: You realized early on that teaching was going to integral to your career.
D.S.: I understood that very few dancers at that time — and still today — actually can make their full-time living from dance, particularly if you’re not in one of the bigger metropolitan areas such as New York. I also started too late to join an established ballet company, but then I always felt joy in teaching. I moved to Atlanta because an article in Southern Living magazine claimed it was “the New York of the South.”
A Life-Changing Weekend
D/USA: Tell us about founding your company Full Radius Dance.
D.S.: When I started my first dance company, it was before I even knew physically integrated dance existed. I laid the groundwork for it at the end of 1990, getting my 501(c)3, securing rehearsal space, and began rehearsals in early 1991.
Soon after, a weekend-long workshop was offered in the community about bringing the arts to different populations. I knew I wanted my company to have a greater impact in the community, so I went. I gravitated to the movement workshop, which was taught by Mary Verdi-Fletcher [founder of Dancing Wheels]. My life just completely changed that weekend.
I left with so much to think about. These were bodies that didn’t look like mine, or work like mine. I came through a very traditional, Eurocentric view of ballet and dance that demanded one body type. And here were these bodies that were still artistically authentic and relevant. I thought this was something to explore. Coincidentally, at the same time, I was doing circus arts — trapeze and Spanish web. I was deeply interested in physicality in all of its forms. Strangely enough, circus arts tied in to my excitement about exploring physically integrated dance. For me both were new and different ways of moving, of telling stories.
Then VSA Arts, Special Audiences, and the Atlanta Ballet collaborated to start dance classes for all types of bodies here in Atlanta. Following a two-day teacher training, I started teaching dance classes [for students with disabilities].
D/USA: As you acclimated to teaching those who had different ways of mobilizing — perhaps using wheelchairs or crutches — what did you learn and did it change how you create and teach?
D.S.: I became a better teacher almost immediately. I was used to going into a class and teaching the class. I started going into the class and teaching the individuals in the class. That really flipped my thinking: there was not, for example, like the Cecchetti method or the Vaganova method in ballet, basically only one way to do a tendu or fondu.
In physically integrated dance, working with this variety of bodies, I realized there were many ways to accomplish the same goal. It was very exciting to work closely with the students to figure out what this means. For example, how did we transpose a leap for someone who uses a wheelchair? One way to do that it becomes about the lift of the chest, which is about the upward focus, instead of taking the body into the air.
In those early days, I was very lucky the whole class didn’t just abandon me. I would teach an exercise. We’d do it. Then I would turn around and say, “That didn’t work, did it?” We’d have a good laugh and erase that one from our memories. Those experiences gave me more knowledge. Things that didn’t work were proving to be just as valuable as discovering what did work. I always asked myself, how do we involve every single student in this class from the moment they enter the classroom to the moment they leave. Nobody should be sitting on the side observing.
D/USA: As, to use Mary Verdi-Fletcher’s term, a “stand-up dancer,” did your dancers using wheelchairs ever say to you, “Well, you have no idea what it’s like in a wheelchair”? Or were they accepting of you?
D.S.: I was fortunate, and I remain fortunate, both in the way classes were structured and with the open communication that we have. I told the dancers, “I don’t know everything, but let’s figure it out together.” I do not have a body currently with a disability. I learned that, for example, in the power chair, you sometimes have to wait for the wheels to flip before you can start a turn. That meant we needed to add an extra count or that a dancer had to anticipate the turn by getting the wheels set so that everybody turns together.
Once I started teaching to the individual, all my other classes got better. I quit thinking that one exercise will fit every body without any modification or transposition.
D/USA: Let’s talk about language because that can be a charged topic.
D.S.: Full Radius Dance was one of the first of a few companies to use the term “physically integrated dance.” I know some companies used “mixed ability” or “wheelchair dance.” We moved away from using mixed ability because it implies a judgement, that there were better abilities and there were lesser abilities.
I’m very clear about the terms we prefer and I’m able to explain why we prefer those terms. Language — and this is one of the things we say in all our workshops — is constantly evolving. Terminology is constantly evolving. The preferred term that we use today may be out of favor in 20 years. Our company has dancers with and without disabilities. We never liked the term wheelchair dance because that takes the power away from the individual and puts it on the apparatus, on the chair. In one of our school performances, one of our dancers would roll down in the chair and get out of her chair. So the wheelchair just sits there. Dance is performed by the person not the chair.
I started embracing the term “radical bodies” in the past couple of years. For a while, I ran away from the concept that there was a political or a social aspect to what we are doing. I just wanted Full Radius Dance to be about the art. But it isn’t. I’m getting more comfortable with the idea that just the fact that these bodies are on stage together performing is a radical statement.
D/USA: I read that you experimented with using a wheelchair in the studio to help with your choreography. Is that something you continue to use in your choreography?
D.S.: I used it early on to get an understanding. But I always say it wasn’t an authentic understanding because I do not have a disability myself. It gave me some insights into how a dancer in a chair might transpose the technique. I’ve been working in physically integrated dance for a number of years now, and I rarely use the chair anymore. Sometimes I’ll bring it into new situations, when I may not have one of my dancers with me so I can demonstrate how it might look. Although, we always try to team-teach as much as possible so there’s always representation from both a dancer with a disability and a dancer without a disability.
D/USA: Does Full Radius Dance work with dancers on a project or a contract basis?
D.S.: We’re on full contract: We start in August and this year, 2020, we’re going through the end of June. It’s essential for Full Radius Dance’s work that we’re in the studio every week. We meet three times a week, take company class together, create new work, rehearse. It’s important in our work to build and maintain those levels of trust. It’s also just about getting to know each others’ bodies, which is essential to any dance company, but perhaps in physically integrated dance it’s even more important. Everybody has to understand everybody else’s body because there are quick, instantaneous changes in moves like counter balances where one person is a pivot. Each dancer moves a little differently, and having that understanding in the body is so important to our work.
D/USA: As a member of Dance/USA’s Deaf and Disability Affinity Group, are you seeing growing interest and acceptance in the dance field for a wider range of dancers and companies? Or are there still areas where physically integrated dance is not fully accepted?
D.S.: I’d say “yes” to both. I’m always excited when I look at the list of the members of the Dance/USA’s Deaf and Disability Affinity Group, which now numbers over 60 people. That’s a big group. The growth is mostly due to Judith Smith and her leadership at AXIS Dance. She started a national conference, she called it a convening, to bring stakeholders in the field together, which raised awareness of who everyone else was in the field. Exciting things have happened like UCLA’s Dancing Disability Lab designed particularly for disabled dance artists, who come and learn the craft of choreography and disability history. AXIS has a choreographic lab for physically integrated dance and Dancing Wheels partnered with the University of Akron.
We’re making inroads slowly. I’ll consider it a success when dancers with disabilities come up through the university training programs. There’s a learning curve for university dance programs. We’re slowly trying to work with them to understand that the success of the field is going to rely on having trained dancers, both disabled and non-disabled, who can work on a professional level in this art form.
D/USA: Is your goal for every company to be physically integrated?
D.S.: Oh, no. If working in physically integrated dance is central to your mission, yes.If not, no. There’s room in the field for everybody. Physically integrated dance — we’re just trying to nudge our way in and get recognized and get support for the work that we do.
Many dance companies — Mark Morris, for example, has Dance for Parkinson’s as part of its outreach — are already working in some aspect with people with disabilities, whether it’s developmental disabilities or physical disabilities. Our goal is to give people who are doing this more tools for their tool kit.
Overcoming Barriers On Tour
D/USA: Performing and touring as a physically integrated dance company places additional challenges on the company, the artists and the presenters. What are some roadblocks you face and how do you overcome them?
D.S.: Access is always huge. When we went to Madrid, they did not have a bus with a lift on it. That meant dancers had to get out of their chair, crawl up the stairs, someone had to bring the chair up …. We have to make sure everybody in the company is okay with that. And they were that time. Sometimes we don’t tour because of barriers like that. Or we find a creative way around the accessibility issue. Nine times out of 10, the dancers choose to be creative. We do that because we want to perform. We want these experiences in other countries and other cities, but full access is challenging.
Presenters may think they’re fine because their house may be wonderfully accessible with spaces for patrons in wheelchairs and accessible restrooms. But they don’t consider someone with a disability could be an actor or a dancer who needs access backstage to accessible dressing rooms and accessible restrooms and access to get on the stage. Further, tech booths are some of the most inaccessible places in a theater: You have to climb up a ladder to get there usually. That means we’re missing out on having disabled technicians being involved in the show.
That said, we rarely decline to perform. After doing this for enough years, I can usually say, “Here’s what we can do.” Or I suggest they move the performance to an accessible venue.
D/USA: What else should the dance field be working on to further equity for physically integrated dancers and companies?
D.S.: Statistics say that one-fifth of all Americans have a disability. That’s 20 percent of the population that [presenters] could reach in their communities, who would be attracted to this type of dance because they’re going to see themselves reflected on stage.
I’ll also say work to make your dance studios and performance spaces fully accessible. I realize money is always going to be a problem, but there are quite a number of studios that will hold a class on the second floor and there’s no elevator in the building. Every opportunity that we can’t perform is a lost opportunity in regards to the activism of bringing these radical bodies on stage together.
Finally, as a physically integrated company, we’ve always struggled with a mindset that because we are working with these different bodies — these radical bodies — we are doing a version of dance therapy rather than performance quality work. Dance therapy from my understanding is designed to cure something. In Full Radius Dance, we don’t believe the disabled body needs to be cured. It is an essential part of our identity.
Lisa Traiger edits From the Green Room, Dance/USA’s online journal, and writes frequently on dance and the performing arts for a variety of publications including Dance, Dance Teacher, Washington Jewish Week and DCDanceWatcher. An award-winning arts journalist, she is a former co-president of the Dance Critics Association and holds an MFA in choreography from University of Maryland.
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