• Erin Clark

Visibility, Disability and Wheelchair Pole Dancing


This short doc was published 4 years ago today. When this video popped up on my fb memories, I thought: it's fun to reflect on representation as it ages! Barcroft did a fair job on their contextualizing interludes. But a few things got lost in edits and how how much better is it if I provide my own!

When I didn’t think I could pursue a career in dance, It was because I understood how it would be appropriated. That opportunities would be scarce, or so oriented toward inspiration/motivation that butting up against all those barriers would interfere in my relationship to dance. Did I want a dance career or did I want to move and feel my body in this sensually powerful way? Who was it for? What was it for? “Can’t” pursue it professionally and “dont want to deal with that” overlap in the disability calculations we run while making life choices.

I expressed this in a recent piece I published on my blog —that insecurity and self doubt is different from recognizing the limitations of how society regards you. But the way society limits you, can ruin how much you enjoy doing what you’re good at.

Creating, finding, assessing opportunities as a disabled artist is not an entirely distinct element from one’s relationship to their art. One is direct; I do what I want, what I am drawn to do, express what is in me, the authority required to do so is my own. The other is mediated; how will audiences receive it, who will pay, how will I get training? how will I be written about/reviewed/profiled? Someone else has the authority to allow it.

I grew up navigating a society that was aggressively uneasy about disabled people exercising authority over their bodies —often by calling our mere presence a liability. Hiding their moral issue by making it legally impossible.

A career is a kind of societal permission.

When you’re disabled, Society isn’t remotely permissive.

I recently had a conversation with another artist friend about how so much of art (and writing) is an act of ongoing decisiveness. There is no one to make those choices for you, you’re the authority. Much like Kids playing, some of the most authority-rich action. “Ok, say that you are the dragon and you are hungry but I won’t let you eat the dogs and the dogs are actually princesses and you run around trying to catch them but I save them and put you in jail!” You make what you imagine real. What you feel, tangible. Choices that lead to actions are generative, and I feel, the mysterious basis of art. At least for me —it was my basis.

My way as an artist has often been beligerance —to take anyone else’s permission out of the equation (as much as possible) and then see what I could do.

Those rebellions, in concert with all the other rebellions going on everywhere else, somehow change the permission society is willing to give overtime. You never know precisely how your rebellion links to the expanding permissions, but it does.

In the clips I talk about how the studio I trained aerial silks and aerial rope in Spain had poles and was very competiton oriented, and none of that interested me, but that once I started to incorporate my wheelchair into pole dance moves …I was dancing. Which is misleading, I was always dancing. I was already a professional aerial dance performer. What was cut was me saying that I found it extremely compelling, the incorporation of my wheelchair into pole tricks. They weren’t skills I was imitating from able bodied standards, it wasn’t adaptation. I was inventing entirely new skills. Ones that non disabled athletes couldn’t do. Some that were significantly more challenging than the non disabled version —I had two apparatus, and one them moved. My choreography was designed to keep the wheelchair meaningfully present. Not something the judges were expected to ignore. I was demonstrating skills unique to me, Because of my disability, and that was highlighted by the constraints put on me by the judging standards, and the inevitable comparisons between me and the non disabled athletes. Without the required movements, I wouldn’t have explored wheelchair interpretations. With a point structure, I had a metric as a form of communication between me and a non disabled judging panel. And I was negotiating with it by competing. I was intrigued by all of this strongly enough that I gave my permission for it to mediate my relationship with movement.

I’ve been thinking about how important visibility is, how important it is that disabled people show up. This is how we push against the limits of permission (very different from pushing our limits). But visibility can be expensive, and we have budgets for visibility as unique as our disabilities. When I see earlier examples of me navigating visibility, how much it mattered that I was comfortable in my authority on myself and my body, I see a way in which deliberate visibility is also art.

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