When Disability Sparks Creativity

As dancers, our bodies are our voices; our means of expression. And for much of the dance world, there is an expectation of physical perfection, beauty and ability that is central to the idea of what makes a dancer. Like dancers, singers also rely on their bodies as instruments of artistic expression and there is a long tradition of exquisite voices, in all genres of music, thrilling audiences through vocal prowess, musicality, phrasing and interpretation. But unlike the world of dance, there are also singers who are considered truly great artists, who’s voices are not “exquisite” in the traditional sense. Superb vocalists, who possess voices that lack traditional beauty, sonority and timbre; singers with vocal equipment that displays the ravages of time, have always been able to captivate audiences. Singers like Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Judy Garland and more recently Bonnie Raitt have the ability to transfix audiences. Their communicative approach to their music reaches deeply into the hearts of their listeners. Their artistry transcends their physical limitations. In fact, it is the imperfections that make them great. I have always been very much aware of this difference; believing that for a dancer to be great, they needed to possess a great body; a great facility.

And then I found this video

And here is a dancer who isn’t dancing despite his limitations, he is dancing BECAUSE of his limitations. And instead of allowing his disease to dictate what he can not do, he uses it to his advantage. And what is born, out of a physically debilitating disease, is a dancer of great artistic expression who reaches his audiences in a unique, beautiful and profound way. His “disability” was the seed of his great creativity.

When my teacher and mentor Luigi was paralyzed in a car accident, the doctors told him he would never walk again. Determined to dance, Luigi developed his own means of rehabilitation. The exercises he developed became part of his technique and what grew of a tragic accident was a brilliant and completely new way to train dancers. Luigi went on to a highly respected career as a dancer, followed by the creation of a legendary teaching method and school that has reached millions of dancers. One day a new student came up to Luigi before class and said “I wanted to tell you before class starts that I’m disabled.” Luigi looked at her, and without missing a beat said with a shrug “So am I.”

When the acclaimed Broadway dancer Ben Vereen was hit by an automobile, he feared he might never dance again. He reached out to the great Chita Rivera, his friend and colleague. She too had also been horribly injured in a car accident. He asked “Chita, will I ever dance again?” Her response: “You will dance again. But it will be different. And VIVA LA DIFFERENCE”.

So the next time we see that dancer in a wheel chair, or with a physical disability, or some other limitation I believe we should look; really look at what they have to give. And we should be open to what they bring to the stage; what they have to say. Because sometimes what can at first be perceived as a handicap can truly be an inspiration to create. There is nothing more exciting to watch than a completely vulnerable and fully concentrated artist. And what a thrill it can be when we are touched by that artist and moved in a way that we didn’t think possible when it is least expected. And what a gift it can be to an audience to be truly and deeply touched and moved by great inspiration and creativity, Why should we deny ourselves that gift?


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