Judith Smith, Dance/USA Honor Award Recipient

A Driving Force in the Physically Integrated Dance Field

By Lisa Traiger

Woman with blonde hair and blue shirt smiles at the camera

Judith Smith. Photo: Sandy Morris

Judith Smith has been a driving force in integrated dance since she cofounded AXIS Dance Company in Oakland, Calif., in 1987. As one of the first contemporary dance companies to choreograph and produce dance centering dancers with physical disabilities who used wheelchairs, prosthetics and crutches performing together with non-disabled dancers, AXIS broke new ground in the dance world. Under Smith’s direction, the company commissioned more than 35 works from well-regarded choreographers including Joe Goode, Bill T. Jones, Victoria Marks, Margaret Jenkins, and others, most of whom had no or little experience working with physically integrated dance. AXIS Dance Company has performed throughout the United States and around the world, at major festivals and performing arts centers, while frequently offering educational workshops during residency visits.

This month Smith receives the Dance/USA Honor Award at a virtual ceremony on March 10, 2022. This recognition acknowledges an individual in the dance field for “demonstrated achievements, extraordinary leadership, and exceptional contributions to the national dance field, which consistently reflect a high level of artistic excellence, creative force of vision, and breadth of work.” Her accolades include the Alameda County Arts Leadership Award; KQED’s Local Hero; and an Isadora Duncan Dance Award for Sustained Achievement. She is one of Theatre Bay Area’s 40 people that have changed the face of Bay Area theater and was inducted into the Alameda County Women’s Hall of Fame in 2020.

Following retirement from her position as company director in early 2018, Smith remains an advocate for physically integrated dance by serving on panels, participating in conferences and serving as co-chair of the Dance/USA Deaf & Disability Affinity Group.

Dance/USA: You’ve spent your career in the dance world, something you never expected to do. In fact, we could call you a happenstance dancer. How did you discover dance?

Judith Smith: It was by accident …. My accident of dance came after my car accident. I was disabled in a car accident. I had been a champion equestrian, so becoming quadriplegic was really very, very devastating and alienating, both from the world and from myself. I moved to Berkeley when I was 23. One of my first personal care assistants happened to be an improviser and we started just improvising. That really changed my disabled life: I got so much more coordinated and started inhabiting my body again. I became stronger and more independent, which led me into martial arts. I helped start a program for disabled women at an all-women’s martial arts school here in Oakland (Calif.).

Two dancers , one in a wheelchair, on a red background

Judith Smith and Sonsheree Giles in Alone Some and Twosome. Photo: Andrea Basile

That’s where I met Thais Mazur, a dancer, a martial artist and an improviser …. She asked me if I wanted to be in a dance piece. I was just so into movement and exploring how I could move in my chair in a way that wasn’t simply getting from point A to point B, that I said, “Sure.” I didn’t know what I was doing; I barely knew what choreography even was. But Thais got a group of us together and we put together one dance piece — four of us were disabled and three, nondisabled dancers.

I got completely hooked.

When we performed at a festival in Oakland … it was really well received, both by the dance community and by the disabled community. We kept getting offers to create works for different events, so after a couple of years we decided that we really wanted to [keep going]. We got our 501(c)3 and started writing grants. I was just so intrigued with movement and with how I could move both myself, but especially with other people. I discovered so many more options for movement and so many pathways. After devoting years to intense discipline and training [as an equestrian], it was nice for me to have dance to put my energy into.

D/USA: As a founder and early innovator in what you prefer to call “physically integrated dance,” does terminology matter? How has it changed and continues to evolve?

J.S.: I think there’s still question about that. Early on, it was important to address [language]. I realized that there was a social political component to what we were doing because disabled people weren’t seen on stage and weren’t represented. What to call it, and who calls it what, has been a bone of contention over the years. And it still is.

Over the years, even our company name evolved. We started out as AXIS dis/Abled Performance Group; then it was the AXIS Dance Troupe; then we realized that we were serious about being a dance company, so the name evolved to AXIS Dance Company. Our thinking around it evolved because we were one of the first companies doing this work.

It is also important to remember before the Internet, we didn’t know any other companies that were [like us]. We didn’t have language for what we were doing. We didn’t even know other people were doing it, even though [companies] were popping up all over the world at about this same time. Slowly by word of mouth we heard about other companies like us – from Germany, Israel, South America.

There was a lot of discussion about what we call this. [Some] critics wouldn’t even review our work because they didn’t consider it dance. There was confusion about whether we were actually a dance company or if we were doing therapy. Some people like the term “mixed ability.” I don’t. Some people use “sit-down” and “stand-up” dancers. I also don’t like that. We’re not a wheelchair dance company, because we have dancers who don’t use wheelchairs –we have dancers with other disabilities who don’t use wheelchairs. So terminology has been difficult.

“Mixed ability” was the term mostly used in the United States, and “physically integrated” or “integrated” dance came out of the U.K. We started using that because it just sounded more like what we were doing. But integrated is a really loaded word, both in terms of race and, now, in terms of technology, so that’s not perfect.

Forty years into the field now, in some ways it is still evolving. It’s changed with the social justice movement, which got really intense a few years ago. Disability has always been left out of social movements. We’re still left out more than included. That’s why it’s still important to address the disability component. It would be nice if we were at a point societally and culturally where a dance company could just be a dance company, but I don’t feel like we’re there.

D/USA: Can you discuss a particular challenge you faced as a dance company director?

J.S.: I wasn’t ready to retire. I just burned myself out physically and mentally. I didn’t have any gas left in the tank. It’s been really hard work to convince the field that what we were doing was dance and to keep a pool of disabled dancers when there is no pool of disabled dancers to draw from. And to figure out how to tour a company when accessible travel is a nightmare, accessible hotels are a nightmare, and often the backstage of a theater is not accessible, even though front of houses are. Running AXIS was really different than running a company of all nondisabled people who can go where they need to, when they need to.

D/USA: Looking back over your tenure at AXIS, what makes you most proud?

J.S.: When I became director, I was really driven to make AXIS the best integrated company in the country and for our dance form to be taken seriously. Not only artistically, but also on the outreach/education and advocacy fronts. We’ve provided opportunities for so many people, disabled and not, to experience a radically different collaboration and dance form. This is one of the things that kept me fired up. I wanted to change the definition of dance and dancer and to shift the paradigm of what being disabled was. I hope in some way that I accomplished that. I expect AXIS to flourish under the leadership of Nadia Adame, who is the first disabled dancer I hired in 2000. I’m thrilled that things have come full circle.

I’m also proud that I was able to bring the field together in 2016 for the National Convening on Physically Integrated Dance, because we’ve been so disparate as a field. Sadly, we hadn’t been as supportive of each other as we could have been because of competition, limited funding and the limited presenters that are interested in this work. Out of that national convening came AXIS’s Artistic Advancement Platform to Advance Artistry, Opportunity and Equity for Dancers with Disabilities. One of the aspects of that was to foster cross-company collaboration and I’m seeing more companies collaborating. With the formation of Dance/USA’s Deaf & Disability Affinity Group, we’re actually much more unified now.

Two individuals driving a horse-drawn carriage outside

Judith Smith driving her Percheron Jake with trainer Scott Monroe. Photo courtesy of Judith Smith.

D/USA: What are your thoughts on the future of physically integrated dance?

J.S.: Training opportunities are still too limited. We realized if we wanted trained dancers, we were going to have to train them ourselves. We started a community dance jam early on. Then a kids’ program because one mom called us for three years. She said, “I have this disabled child who was just born to dance.” In 2005, we started a summer intensive and a really immersive apprenticeship for disabled dancers. Not many disabled dancers have been able to pursue [university dance] degrees. All those entry points need to be more available and accessible from preschool on up.

While we have to have more training in this field, I’m excited to see what companies are able to do in bringing in even more diverse bodies. Unfortunately, it’s still hard as a disabled dancer to just show up at dance class and be able to fit in. The more different you are, of course, the more difficult it is

Woman wearing a hat with a butterfly on her nose

Courtesy of Judith Smith

D/USA: Tell us about your love of butterflies.

J.S.: I’ve always been a nature nut. I grew up in the mountains of Colorado with animals and nature. Bugs and butterflies have always been a huge part of my life and horses, of course. When I got busy with AXIS working 60 or 70 hours a week, other things had to slip away. I started raising butterflies about 11 years ago — finding swallowtail caterpillars in my yard. I also started adaptive carriage driving with horses.

D/USA: How do you feel about receiving the Dance/USA Honor Award?

J.S.: I am so appreciative of all of the dancers, the funders, the presenters, the staff and the board at AXIS. Thirty years later, I realize it’s more than me dancing, loving dance, and doing it because I want do it. A whole community developed around the company. And now there’s a whole community that’s developing around the field of integrated dance. I am humbled and so appreciative that people were willing to take that risk and to put their all into it. It is exciting now to see three generations of disabled dancers and companies. I’m excited to see where the field goes and how far it can be pushed.

Woman in glasses seated next to a windowLisa Traiger edited From the Green Room, Dance/USA’s online journal, for more than 13 years. She writes on dance and the performing arts for publications, including Dance, Dance Teacher and Washington Jewish Week. 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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