Move Your BodyAccess-Centered Movement Is Changing Dance from the Inside Out

A photo of the author, India Harville, a Black woman in a wheelchair, dancing against an illustrated background of stars

Illustration by Ananya Rao-Middleton

There was a time when I couldn’t get out of bed for two years, and all I dreamed about was dancing again. I’d long had chronic health conditions, but I was still dancing and performing six days a week. Suddenly, in 2011, I started having stroke-like symptoms—paralysis on my right side, seizures, and aphasia—on a daily basis. I was eventually diagnosed with hemiplegic migraines, and seemingly overnight, my whole life came to a screeching halt. It was hard to envision a future outside of the one I was living, and dreaming about dancing was the only thing that kept me going. I would lay in bed and move the left side of my body, then I would imagine moving my right side, trying to coax my body into doing bed choreography. After a year, I got a wheelchair—and the first place I went was a dance class. I felt so exhilarated and free while dancing in my wheelchair, but the rampant ableism in the dance world stifled my exuberance.

Dance studios and performance venues aren’t always accessible to people with disabilities, but that wasn’t the only barrier. Often the teachers didn’t know how to make the material accessible for disabled bodies, how to deal with fluctuating capacities, or how to use language that wasn’t offensive. And my fellow students were terrified of me: People didn’t want to partner with me, didn’t want to dance next to me, and didn’t even want to make eye contact with me. Having control over one’s body is something dancers prize, and my body threatened that foundational idea. After encountering so many obstacles, I began studying mixed-ability dance, or dance for people with a variety of disabilities.

I was saddened to discover that many of these spaces didn’t provide the kind of inclusivity that would welcome my body or the bodies of many other people I knew in the disability community. They were spaces that centered only disabled wheelchair dancers, not people with chronic illnesses, fluctuating capacities, or non-mobility related disabilities, which were all a big part of my reality. Like mainstream dance spaces, many of these mixed-ability spaces perpetrated other harmful behaviors against multiply marginalized disabled people; they were fatphobic, racist, homophobic, and they privileged ballet over other styles of dance. Eventually, I decided to explore choreographing, performing, and teaching dance in ways that could be accessible to a wide array of disabled bodies and minds and that also honored the principles of disability justice.

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My students would often cry in class, sharing stories of the number of “accessible” classes they attended that catered only to the needs of those who use mobility aids—excluding people on the autism spectrum, people with multiple chemical sensitivities, people with intellectual disabilities, Blind people, Deaf people, and many other disabled community members. Attendees at my performances remarked on how powerful it was for them to see a fat, Black, disabled, and chronically ill narrative told in my own crip time  and told in ways designed to honor my access needs and theirs too. Other multiply marginalized folks exploring similar concepts heard of my work, and we joined together to create the access-centered movement framework. We wanted to fundamentally change how people teach dance in three primary ways: by expanding notions of how to create accessible space in alignment with disability justice standards, by shifting the language teachers use so that it’s anti-ableist and trauma informed and accessible, and by tweaking the ways dance moves are demonstrated and taught. 

Our work still exists in a very niche realm and isn’t fully accepted in mainstream and even in other mixed-ability dance spaces. Getting funding and recognition is still challenging, but having students and audience members share how impactful our classes and performances have been for them makes it all worthwhile. Now my dreams of dance are filled with BIPOC disabled bodies, and no one is trying to force their right foot to do the choreography. We know there’s nothing wrong with our bodies—there’s something wrong with ableist dance culture. Shifting that culture is the most beautiful choreography we can create.

India Harville, a Black woman with shoulder-length black and brown locs, smiles brightly at the camera
by India Harville
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India Harville is an African American femme, queer, disabled, inclusive dance performer, choreographer, and disability justice activist. The unifying theme in India’s work is centering body-based healing as a vehicle for personal and collective growth and transformation. You can learn more about her work at embracedbody.com