Dancing is not just for the ‘perfect’ bodies

An able-bodied dancer and a wheelchair-bound dancer unite on stage.
An able-bodied dancer and a wheelchair-bound dancer unite on stage. Courtesy of Nancy Peterson

Historically, many cultures have not honored and welcomed those with visible physical differences. But, in many ways today, around the world and specifically in the United States, things have improved for those living with physical disabilities, particularly with the passage of the American With Disabilities Act in 1990.

But the gap between what could be in terms of the fullness of lives as they are actually lived, and the letter of the law, is still wide.

We are going through a time right now when society is more obsessed with human physical perfection than ever before, but few of us of can even begin to live up to such an unrealistic standard.

From “flawless” skin to “ideal” proportions to our youth-skewing focus, in some ways, in spite of society’s advances, it’s never been harder to accept ourselves, and one another, as the whole, complex, and diverse human beings we are. Perhaps, it’s time to explode the whole concept of perfection and beauty wide open and create a new paradigm for how we see each other.

I have worked for more than 25 years in the field of mixed ability or physically integrated dance in Miami, and across the globe, where often the idea of the beauty of human bodies and how they move is very different. We bring professional dancers with and without disabilities together in the same dance companies, in the same piece of choreography, and on the same stage. Differences don’t have to be erased, denied, or hidden away to do this — we just have to learn how to celebrate who we all are as individuals, and discover the wonder of our unique capabilities, by influencing each other’s physicalities.

For me, as a physically able-bodied dancer, this is not about compromise. There are amazing additions to my own choreographic vocabulary that come from working with someone using a wheelchair, new ideas, new “steps,” that I could not imagine without these members of my own company. Or how working with a dancer with visual impairment, who “sees” and hears the space around him or her, expands, instead of contracts, that space for me as well, in vivid and alternative ways.

Opening our hearts, our eyes and our artistic visions to people of all abilities is more than tolerance, is more than even acceptance; it enriches our own humanity, and allows all of us to be our best.

Bodies are beautiful to me, and I mean all bodies. Some segments of the dance world have begun to move away from the older notion of the “perfect,” young, ideal ballet body as the only type of body that can perform with depth and meaning onstage.

Our society as a whole has, overall, moved toward greater inclusion and celebration of our differences — by race, gender, physical ability and so much more, in spite of the contrary sense, enforced by the 24/7 media stream, that you are only as good as your six-pack abs.

Certainly it’s a two steps forward, one step back process.

It is my hope that the art I create with my collaborators, and the spark and vision in all cultural work that embraces and expands who we are as people, can speak to this moment and be part of the ongoing change our society needs.

The author’s company, Karen Peterson and Dancers, will perform with an invited company from Austria, LizArt Productions, in a new mixed-ability work, “Scrutiny: The World Gone Astray , May 11 and 12 at Miami-Dade County Auditorium. For more informantion, visit www.karenpetersondancers.org.