Interview with Sally Davison

Sally Davison is a dance artist who has been creating with and teaching artists with physical or mental disabilities. More than a decade ago she brought „DanceAbility“ phenomena to Finland and since then she‘s been practicing it not only while leading workshops, but also in her „Kaaos Company“ and in „XDance“ festival where artists with disabilities arrive from all around the world.

All this time Sally keeps making steps to change a perception of how should a dancer on a stage look like and who can become a professional dancer. According to her, it‘s not a body structure which allows artist to embody ideas on a stage; it‘s his/her guts to work and contribute a lot of time.

During 28-30 of August Sally will share her experience in Vilnius during „Summer Dance Intensive Vilnius“. While waiting for her visit, we have talked to Sally about her artistic and educational activities, her attitude towards dance on a stage, towards people and their ability to accept things which society never taught them to accept.

Sally Davison. Pic by Marika Aho

Could you tell a bit about the XDance Festival you‘ve just had?

This was the longest form of the festival we have had so far (six days). The festival started in 2016 as a platform to share inclusive dance; it is now a biannual event. The 2023 programme had four workshops, eight performances, a dance film event (with four films), a panel discussion, an interview, a conversation, a presentation, and some parties. The people involved in the festival were from Uganda, South Africa, United Kingdom, France, New Zealand, US, Germany and Finland.

We sponsor two dance artists with disabilities to attend the festival: Joseph Tebandeke from Uganda and Christelle Dreyer from South Africa. This is what Joseph wrote about his experience, which I think shares the essence of the festival: ‘attending the XDance Festival was a truly transformative experience. From the moment I stepped into the vibrant atmosphere that was a collective effort of artists and participants, I was captivated by the energy and passion of the dancers and performers. The festival provided a diverse platform for artists sharing different backgrounds and showcasing their talent and creativity. It was inspiring to witness the loving and togetherness of everyone and the collaborative spirit that permeated every workshop and performance. The XDance Festival not only celebrated the integrated arts movement but also fostered a deeper connection with everyone and others through the universal language of dance.

Is there a story of how and why you‘ve become a professional in DanceAbility?

I have always felt at home with people whose minds and bodies organise outside the ‘norm’. When I was younger, I had contact with people with disabilities, and later, when I attended an inclusive dance class my friend was running in Australia in 2000, I resonated deeply with the work. I began a class when I first moved to Finland, but I eventually took the DanceAbility teacher training at the Impulstanz Dance Festival in Vienna in 2007. Taking this training changed my life! The main pretext of the work is inclusion, and we can all have the feeling of being included or excluded as part of the human condition. This made so much sense to me, and the fact that the method is deeply embedded in the sensations of the body makes it accessible to everyone. We can all sense the movement of the breath, for example. In fact, I would say the training became a way for me to embody myself more (which is an ongoing, lifelong process).

I guess you work with people who have specific disabilities. Could you name these?

Actually, the foundation of the DanceAbility work is that we work with everyone, and the method is created so that you can facilitate a class with any denomination of people (which means any disability). The one demographic of people we have never had in our classes are people with hearing impairments. Outside of that, we have had people with visual impairments, cerebral palsy, osteogenesis imperfecta, spinal cord injuries, and various intellectual disabilities such as Down’s syndrome and autism.

How do you reach people who want to be artists? Do they find you or do you need to contact their caretakers who encourage people to take part in your works?

Actually, it is a challenge to find people. Perhaps there is still a strong perception and narrative in society about what type of body dances, especially professionally, as there has not been prolific representation of disabled bodies in the arts. Most professional dance artists with disabilities I know first thought that dancing was not for them. But luckily, somehow they found themselves in a class (through an invitation or suggestion from someone), and once there, they discovered the joy of dancing (this applies more specifically to people with physical disabilities).

With people with intellectual differences generally, a wider network is needed to establish access and support for dancing, which means involving parents, caretakers, and residential homes. Another issue is that people with intellectual disabilities can be involved in many activities, and so there may be a desire to be involved but not an understanding of what becoming a professional means in terms of time, commitment, and practise.

Often, it is good to initiate work with institutions. So far, we have never had the resources to really develop the support structures needed to enable more people with intellectual disabilities to develop a dance career, but hopefully that will change in the future as more information becomes widely available and as more people realise what is possible for people with disabilities.

Sally Davison. Pic by Marika Aho

Have you ever felt superior while being on a stage with people who physically cannot do something you can?

No, I have never felt this. For me, the focus is on what we can bring alive in the space in our bodies and between our bodies, which is not dependent on what one can or cannot do but on where awareness and attention are, which are available to everyone. My bias is that this kind of listening can touch people as it becomes a rarer state in today’s society.

What differences between questions „who can dance“ and „who can be professional dancers“ would you name?

I think this question applies to everyone, whether they are able-bodied or disabled. It takes commitment and dedication to be a professional dancer. You need to show up and practise, and it takes a lot of time, as we all know. I think for some people, once they realise what is possible for them and take ownership of it, there is no stopping them. There are more and more possibilities opening up to be involved in professional dance productions (not just in Finland but internationally). Many of the principles apply to everyone, but the degree of what is available can vary considerably for people with disabilities.

Could you comment on how does the Finnish cultural (or at least artistic) field integrates people with disabilities into professional activities?

There is more awareness now in Finland than when we first started in 2008, but simultaneously, it feels like things are slow to change. Unfortunately, exclusion still exists, perhaps because it is still a grey area in terms of what it really means to include. It is easy to use words such as inclusion and accessibility (especially when it comes to funding, but that is a whole other topic). Ultimately, inclusion and accessibility need to be taken on through actions and a willingness to learn what is required. In a panel discussion, I heard Claire Cunningham (a professional dance artist from the UK) wisely suggest that the slow changes are perhaps due to a lack of imagination.

There is awareness primarily from the private and public funding bodies in Finland because they recognise the cultural and artistic value, but yet this has not generally filtered through so much to the art field in Finland in general in terms of visibility and representation (on stage and off stage in audience members) in who is included in professional work. The Finnish organisation ‘Culture for All’ is dedicated to changing this situation for disabled artists by creating support structures for artistic development and mentorship.

Another basic problem is that there is not much accessibility in the art education institutions in Finland, so people with disabilities are limited to education and the possibility of developing as artists. As mentioned earlier, this is not, I believe, an intention to exclude people but perhaps just a lack of imagination, as Cunningham pointed out earlier.

And finally, the element of time needs to be considered in inclusive work. We all have different timing, but people with disabilities need more time to attend to basic things, which is now often referred to as ‘crip time’. For example, workshops starting very early or not giving enough time for toilet or lunch breaks can be common. This is a benefit of the work that interrupts our assumptions, and the general, generic timing we adhere to is fundamentally not inclusive.

It is also a fact of the work that more resources are needed to support a diverse demography to make sure spaces are accessible with toilets, ramps, etc., and the only people who can really say if somewhere is accessible are the people with disabilities themselves (by being consulted, which rarely happens). I am keenly aware that I am writing this as a person without a disability. My bias comes from my observations and conversations with disabled artists, not always from my experience.

Have you noticed how spectators in Finland perceive shows performed by artists with disabilities? Do they tend to deeply get into an art, or do they usually plainly cheer for these artists? I am wondering, how often people can see a disabled body as a vessel for a creative work instead of something exotic.

This is a very good question and one that is complex to answer. Generally, people are not used to seeing disabled bodies, even publicly, so when put on stage, the lens through which people perceive can be multilayered, and all the points you refer to can be present. I think the novelty that you speak of is very present at first due to a lack of exposure to various bodies and minds on stage. In public events, for example, when Kaaos Company has been performing, the media always wants to interview the dancers with disabilities; they are not interested in speaking with the other dancers. This highlights a hierarchical way of thinking and seeing that flips the historical invisibility of people with disabilities into a polar opposite place. Maybe this is something that needs to happen before balance emerges?

It is also important to understand how the dancers with disabilities perceive themselves and want to represent themselves by being seen. For some, visibility is a huge aspect of dancing, and that is enough; for others, it is about carving a professional path for themselves in the dance field. Again, there are many layers to this. To make a distinction, I know dance artists who have a disability rather than disabled dance artists. But again, this is something that contains my inherent biases, and each person with a disability can view themselves differently depending on how they want to be described.

You‘re doing an extremely difficult job – trying to change human‘s perception. What helps you continuing this for so many years?

I continue because of my fascination with movement, perception, connection, and the unknown. Working with bodies that organise differently than my own asks me to grow and develop new ways to be and move. If someone expresses their whole being in the movement of a finger, that invites me to become more nuanced in my listening, attention, and awareness of what and how I move. All bodies can be an invitation to meet, learn, and create, which is a mutual endeavour in growing connection (beyond what I know) in ourselves and with each other. Ultimately, a field of learning is sustained for everyone when the as-is nature of the body is the communal ground for meeting.

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