Narratives and Agency

Hetty Blades

During the joint meeting of Congress on Research in Dance and Society of Dance History Scholars last month I took part in an impromptu roundtable discussion about dance and disability, after the original panel was cancelled. It was a really interesting session which included people gathered from various academic disciplines such as disability studies, gender, literature, and dance. There were a combination of disabled and non-disabled people present, coming from a range of backgrounds and with varied experiences, although most the participants were situated within the academy, either as scholars or students, and based in the USA. The conversation was broad and ranged from how we understand what disability is, the instability of the notion, identity politics, self-identification, activism, power structures, and best practices. Reflecting on this roundtable, the thing that strikes me most is the harmful impact of negative social narratives about disability, and that despite their range of approaches and experiences, the people in the room appeared to share an investment in shifting the way that disability is talked about.

Arriving back in the UK I came across a paper called ‘Reporting Disability in the Age of Austerity’ (Briant et al),[1] written in 2013 in the midst of the aftermath of the financial crisis and cuts imposed by the coalition government. Briant et al discuss how narratives of disability in the media had become more negative and critical of state support since 2004/5. Recent political events, such as the EU referendum campaign have demonstrated how the media, which now exists largely online, is central to the cultivation and circulation of social narratives and has a very real impact on our everyday lives. So how we counteract this? How can our research contribute to the circulation of positive narratives about disability?

In this project we recognise that disabled dancers are leaders and agents of change. However, being able to instigate change requires agency, understood as the potential to take action, and this is not straightforward. The possibility for both individual and collective action and effect is entirely intertwined with social frameworks. Funders, programmers, critics, and audiences are all affected by dominant social discourses and if language around dance and disability is patronising, and/or negative, it may lead institutions and individuals to make choices that limit the autonomy of artists. As sociologist Rudi Laermans writes, “Autonomy and heteronomy, free choices and economic or social constraints […] condense into a difficult to entwine knot” (2016:291).[2]

The online toolkit will provide insight into the lives, creative processes, and aesthetics of work made and performed by disabled dance artists, and offer ways into to talking and writing about the work in order the contribute to the construction of new narratives. Furthermore, the mediatised transmission of the online toolkit and art documentary means that this work will reach a wide range of people in various geographical locations, and the discussions will circulate alongside other mediatised outputs. I hope therefore, that this project will provide an antidote to negative portrayals of disability, contribute to (re)forming social narratives, and foreground the agency of disabled dance artists to share and write their own stories.

[1] Briant, E., Watson, N. & Philo, G. (2013) ‘Reporting disability in the age of austerity: the

changing face of media representation of disability and disabled people in the United Kingdom and the creation of new ‘folk devils’’, 28 (6), 874889.

[2] Laermans, R. (2015) Moving Together: Making and Theorizing Contemporary Dance. Amsterdam: Antennae.

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