Dancer, Performance Artist and Choreographer
I think that often some disabled people don’t see themselves as leaders because they’re not encouraged to. We often have untraditional skills, sometimes we have skills we don’t even recognise, ones that we use everyday. Like skills around organising people, or services, or all sorts of things. Its lateral thinking, all those sorts of things we become good at but there’s no piece of paper that says what we’ve got. I’ve spent a lot of time with disabled people, encouraging them to include those sorts of things on their CV, to see them as being skills.
I think there is something scary about the word ‘leader’ and about seeing myself as one. Every now and then I think “oh maybe I could put that hat on” and then I think “oh I’m not quite sure, am I good enough yet to actually consider attaching that label to myself?”
But in much of your work you have a leadership role?
Absolutely, which is quite exciting because it makes me think okay, I must be one! I might have applied to something like the Clore Foundation but I haven’t yet. When it first came out it seemed that you had to be attached to an organisation, and that because I am a freelancer I couldn’t apply. I thought I’m never ever going to get leadership skills because I’m not attached to an organisation. I don’t have an organisation to go back to. So I’m quite excited about the possibility of my new role [with Scottish Dance Theatre] because it means I could do some more formal leadership training which would be great, because my new role very much is going to be a leadership role, Its going to be about changing peoples thinking and I think that’s a key aspect of what leadership is about.
I was a mentor for someone. There was a young woman in Melbourne who had the same disability as me and she started coming to me when she was 14. She would get on a bus, leave her family and come and spend weekends with me, once every two months. And I would just take her out and she would just live my life, just for the weekend and then she would go back. We built up a very close relationship in that time, so she kind of became my baby sister. And its really amazing because she literally followed my path. She went to the same university as I did, the same college that I did (she obviously did a different course), she then worked for the organisation I worked for five years earlier. Now she’s finally split off and is doing her own thing. I was able to support her through her kind of learning what it is to be independent, to live on her own. It wasn’t any formal leadership programme. It was about living; it was about what is it to have a life when other people think that you can’t.
I think a lot of it came from my mum allowing me to take risks. My family encouraged me; I had two big brothers that didn’t handle me with kid gloves. Physically they did, but they kind of encouraged me to try stuff, and it was okay if it didn’t work out but I could always have a go and see what happens. I didn’t grow up being a girlygirl – they wouldn’t have let that! Instead it was all about trying stuff and thinking, what’s the worst that can happen?
I think that’s a really interesting question because I was in a special school for most of my primary school life, which had its advantages and disadvantages, absolutely. I got no encouragement from many of the teachers at special school, but there were a few who saw my potential and so kind of pushed me much more than lots of the other kids were pushed.
There was a guy called David Craig who now runs an advocacy service in Melbourne whose been in the industry for a long time, and he very much believed that disability should not prevent you from having a good time. He was the one who would organise the Friday night discos that we all went to, and he would arrange for the buses us to take us home and everyone who, kind of had those concepts about people having to be tucked up in bed at 9 o’clock at night, he just kind of blew that out of the water. He would take us away on camp and we just got to do what teenagers would do, whereas without him that just wouldn’t have happened. So he is one of the people I found support through.
In my last year at high school I went to a residential weekend organised by an amazing woman called Jenny Shaw. It was about getting more disabled students into university and was held at the campus at Deakin. When I first heard about it I really wasn’t sure that I would be able to do it, whether I was up to it. You weren’t allowed to be taken there, you had to make your own way to the weekend, you had to use public transport and I’d never really done that on my own before. It sounds tiny, I just had to get on the train and there were people obviously at the other end to meet us and it was only an hour from Melbourne which wasn’t far, but it was a huge thing. For me, even the university campus was incredible. We spent the weekend listening to other disabled students that had gone to university and hearing about what they had done and what there doing now. It just made me think maybe I can, maybe I can do this. I also met lots of amazing people and had lots of very late nights! And I went home saying to my mum I’m going to go to university, I’m going to go to Deakin. Jenny Shaw very much remains a constant in my life.
An interesting thing for me is that now I’m going back there to the same weekend conference to talk to young disabled people about where I’ve got to now, its kind of done a full 360 degree turn only now we are nearly 20 years on. I’m going back to talk about the arts, about taking things to new kinds of places, because disability arts, or arts and disability even, are not at the same stage of development as where we are here in the UK.
I think Jenny was a huge influence on me and David was a huge influence too. And I think, the older I get and the more young and I suppose unconfident disabled people I meet, it all reminds me of how far I have come and what I’ve learned. Not in a kind of “I know it all” way but kind of a “okay, there are things that you know now that you didn’t know before” way.
I started dancing because I did performing arts at university and one of the components was dance and I hated it because I was being taught by someone who just put me on the side and said “you just make it up yourself”. I really hated it for that reason but when I finished university I was working in a boring admin job and I got a call from an organisation called Arts Access in Melbourne who were setting up a group. They were looking for disabled people who had some professional experience in the arts, in dance or in performance of some sort. So they got in touch with me and said would you come be part of this group because CandoCo is coming to Australia and they want to run master classes and workshops but we don’t have anyone they can work with. They wanted people to prepare in advance so we could actually look like we knew what we were doing.
So we had this 12 week intensive one night a week course. Loads of dance in 12 weeks and once I started, I just learnt so much more about my physicality and my body and what I could do with it that I never ever explored before because the nature of my disability. My life had been about being careful, just in case I broke something. Whereas dance is not about being careful at all, so it was really nice contrast for me to be physically pushing myself and finding out what I actually could do, what my body does do, what it could do that it hasn’t been doing.
That’s one of the things that I am really interested in exploring now with people. So many people have no body awareness at all or any spacial awareness. I don’t have that many disabled friends but the ones that I do, I often look at them and think ‘how much time do you actually spend out of your chair?’. Not in bed, not in the shower. I forget how static people actually become, so I’m quite interested in pushing that. And I think I’ve always quite liked the idea of being places I shouldn’t have been.
I think part of this new job is about looking at who says who can be a dancer and who says what a dancer is. I find dance so elite and exclusive and excluding, that I think if I’m on the inside of it then there’s much more chance of me being able to hold open something that says ‘Come on!’.
No it doesn’t say anything on my passport, but when I come back now I write ‘performance artist and choreographer’. But its amazing, when I meet people and they say what do you do and I say I dance, I make dance or I’m in dance. You can just see people thinking “really?” I know I’m not a stick insect, but.
It was more of a difficult for me to start thinking of myself as a professional dancer. And there was a whole other shift when I decided to start calling myself a choreographer. That was a whole other thing. So there was two moments. And I remember them incredibly clearly, the first one was when I met with one of the cultural leaders who works at Dance City, and he was coordinating a service called Dance Connect, which supports professional dancers in the north-east. And he came to meet with me and I kind of did that thing where I’m not sure if I’m really good enough to even consider calling myself that because for me it was all about, you had to be making a living from it and all these other things. And he was just like, if you want to call yourself a professional dancer then do it. Start, do it, see what happens! And that was amazing but the really crap thing was that I had to be given permission to do it. It was exactly what I needed and so I did. That was about April, and in the in November I became self employed and was making 25% of my income in the first year from dance just, from shifting the way I thought about myself.
The other point, when I shifted about the choreographer bit was when I did the session with June Gamble as part of Cultural Shift. And I started by saying well, I want to be a choreographer. And by the end of it I was saying, yeah I’m a choreographer, and that’s what the business card says and that’s what I am and that’s what I’ll be. And I think it is amazing that, for me, the power of what I think about myself and what I call myself makes such a difference to how successful I am.
Not really. It did do lots of things to my head, my confidence and certainly did lots of things to my body. The research and development week was 18 months before I actually went to dance with them and this gave me the foot up the arse that I needed. Because it made me think “right girl, you call yourself a professional dancer, that means you have to work, you work at it constantly, you seek the opportunity to do it”. Being a dancer not just saying I’m a dancer, its not just a name.
It was amazing to get the email saying ‘will you come and dance with us?’ It was great because for quite sometime I’d been going along to dance studios and never really being taken seriously as a dancer. And to be able to go in and look at people and say ‘I’m not going to be around for the next 5 months because I’m going on tour with Scottish Dance Theatre’ made people sit up and other dance artists especially to kind of go ‘oh shit, I’m not dancing with a mainstream high profile company. How come she is and I’m not?’
There is that thing about being one of the chosen ones. I have to say that being disabled has helped me. And I have no hesitation about being up front about it, because that was one of the major criteria, to have a disability. Tick, got that one! So to dance with them was great and then to be going back to work with them with this amazing project that just has so much potential it’s just mind blowing really.
When we opened in Dundee, we were double billing with Scottish Ballet. So Scottish Ballet were in Dundee with us for a week. So they did class with us which was hilarious because we did ballet most days. I was absolutely crap because I’ve never been to a ballet class, clearly. They started talking French to me and I was kind of like, ‘I don’t speak French and I have no idea what that is’ so it was just hilarious. So I made our dance teacher write me a list of what all the words meant. So that I could follow what was going on. But it was so funny, going in and they are all like stick insects - like really tall, really long, everything went where it was supposed to go. They were clearly in their comfort zone doing ballet. And I was just making a right hash of it. And then we tried to do some improvisation on one of the days and they were absolutely terrified. The disabled dancers were really comfortable because that’s what we’re used to. But for the ballet lot it was like “woah I got to make something up for myself, I can’t possibly do it, arrrggh!” I think it was really useful for them to see the way different bodies moved and worked. And it was useful for me being with other wheelchair users. Like if I do a class with CandoCo, I always hope that Marc’s there teaching, because it makes a difference to be able to say ‘what do I do?’ to someone else in a chair.