Review written by Thushari Perera

Invisible Visibility

By Pawlet Brookes, Louise Dickson, Anthony Evans, Louise Katerega

Published by Serendipity (2018)

Mainstream dancers seem to come from a cookie-cutter dance factory. The world of classical ballet is for instance notoriously predominantly white. As dance stages in Europe rarely represent the world as it is, when I saw a black man with dreadlocks on the cover of “Invisible Visibility: Diverse Voices Within Inclusive Dance”, a publication by Serendipity, an arts and cultural social enterprise, I first thought that I was going to learn all about the lack of representation of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) in the British dance sector.

As I flicked through this publication, I discovered that it was actually about the barriers faced by culturally diverse disabled artists or dancers who are subject to both disability discrimination and racial discrimination. I admit that I never really realised before that there are injured dancers, blind dancers, deaf dancers, dancers with prosthetic legs, dancers on crutches and dancers in wheelchairs.

Dance, “Disability” and Race

“Invisible Visibility” was initiated by Pawlet Brookes (Chief Executive and Artistic Director) after a Symposium in partnership with the Attenborough Arts Centre on BAME disabled people in 2017. It seeks to mainstream more culturally diverse inclusive arts practices by highlighting some of the barriers faced by culturally diverse artists within inclusive dance practices and programmes. If a quote can summarise this report, it is this one: “…the arts are an invaluable means of self-expression…creativity is latent in and essential to, everyone, whether they are labelled as amateur, professional, disabled or not.” In this context, why is mainstream understanding of dance, movement and physicality still overly “clinical”?

In the United Kingdom, “disability consciousness” has increased since the Olympic and Paralympic Games in London in 2012, but the needs of disabled communities still remain disproportionately overlooked, despite key milestones achieved by the disability rights movement. As the useful timeline at the back of this publication highlights, the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 is part of the Equality Act 2010.

Inclusive and Culturally Diverse Dance Practices 

By giving a voice to three practitioners, “Invisible Visibility” reveals the hidden stories of a lesser known group of dancers. As these essays need to be read in full, I will only highlight a few points that I find interesting.

Louise Katerega, who is the director of “Foot in Hand”, introduces the integrated dance vision, with its emphasis on the intersectionality of identities. She reminds the reader that there has been a BTEC National Diploma in Performing Arts for physically disabled people and a textbook on disabled dancers since the early 2000s. She also highlights the challenges and benefits of working with BAME disabled people. For instance, she writes that “With medical advances and an ageing population, the need for jobs and services by, with and for disabled people are only set to increase – to invest now is to futureproof for us all.”

Louise Dickson, who is the director of “Illuminate Freedom”, a charity delivering dance, exercise, health and wellbeing projects for people living with sight loss, the fibromyalgia syndrome, chronic pain and chronic fatigue, explains in an essay titled “You can be you”, how she found her place in the professional dance world despite having a non-visible disability. She also introduces the must-watch film “Physically Being Me” she was part of with six other artists who have a disability.

The final essay by Anthony Evans, co-director of Epic Arts, an inclusive arts organisation based in Cambodia and registered in the UK, highlights the impact of war and landmines on a poor country. It is explained that “This means that there are no role models, no people to pass on wisdom or teach things. Health care and education is very poor. This has led to increased levels of disability from preventable diseases, accidents and infections. There are still six million unexploded landmines left over from the civil war and Vietnam war…”. Dance helps break down barriers and build bridges across political, social and religious barriers.

A Dance Revolution 

The main strength of this straightforwardly written 50 page-long publication is that by seeking to change the current UK artistic and cultural landscape it first makes you feel, and then think that a different world is possible. Its poignant photography also conveys more about dance and disability than words can do. In other words, this publication skillfully invites the reader to have a wider philosophical reflexion on what dance is and what truly distinguishes the “abled body” from the “disabled body”. As the American feminist poet Sami Schalk says in “Our Dance Dance Revolution”, “We are all bodies in motion, We slide, ride, wheel, feel, force our way into the music in whatever form our bodies…takes us…”.

I only have a few criticisms about “Invisible Invisibility”. An additional page with the name and contact details of the various inclusive and diverse organisations mentioned in “Invisible Visibility” would have been practical, as attention is drawn to the fact that there is only a small number of relevant organisations with long-term funding. The report also lacks numerical data on this specific inclusive and culturally diverse dance demography. The only numerical information given is from 2012. A larger-scale research found that “44% of Black Asian and Minority Ethnic disabled people live in poverty, compared with 32% of all disabled people and 17% of the population as a whole.” Perhaps a brief survey of these various inclusive and/or diverse dance organisations mentioned in the report would have provided the much needed quantitative data about BAME disabled dancers in order to devise a more focused action plan.

Black Women in Dance

An Inclusive Black Dance Heritage

To conclude, I truly believed that “Invisible Visibility” should be read and/or listened by all, as the audio version of this publication is also available. It makes a compelling case for more diverse and inclusive dance programmes. I personally gained a wider understanding of the challenges faced by all disabled communities, and felt frustrated that more support had not been provided to implement more progressive changes highlighted by disability rights campaigners several years ago. “Invisible Visibility” also provides easy access to information on this lesser documented dance heritage without having the need to trawl through several large books and reports. Reading “Invisible Visibility” also honestly made me want to know more about the wider Black dance narrative and heritage explored in Serendipity’s other publications that I feel I missed out on when preparing this review.

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