The Body's Music Is Not A Shattered Life: A Letter to Stephanie Smith

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Yes, I saw that NYT piece about the "shattered life" of dance teacher, Stephanie Smith. One minute, she's a beautiful active 23 year old. One hamburger later, she's disabled, a paralyzed wheelchair user, her life over. Don't get me wrong. That is an awful thing to happen. The unfairness. The criminality of the system and the uselessness of its safety checks. Unspeakable. Immoral. Greed. Anger and disgust understate my reaction to this story.

Her story does not have to be told this way. For anger, see the Bad Cripple -- whose analysis is anything but bad. For biting clarity, see Stephen Kuusisto at Planet of the Blind. For their words, I am grateful, because even though I was able to take apart the Happy Days piece (post before this one), I found myself unable to create a useful response. Now, I know what I can say.

If she ever finds her way here, I want to offer her a meditation on dancing -- dancing in a wheelchair.


Dear Ms. Smith, Stephanie, if I may:

I don't know what you have been going through -- my experiences and body are not yours. I don't know what it was like to be a dancer before becoming disabled. I don't know the loss you have experienced.

I do know what it is like to push onto the marley and dance. I do know what it is like to take ballet and modern. To roll up to the barre, place my hand on the barre, and begin with breathing and plies. I know the rigors of creative movement. I know how it feels to be waiting in the wings, nervous as all hell, to be called "places." To hear the curtain go up in the darkness, to hear the music, to put my hands to the rims and dance. I know what it feels like to return to the stage, to see the lights go up, and to hear that applause.

The article says you are working as hard as you can to get back as much as you can. As you are doing all that PT and rehab, can I offer you a glimpse of my life as a disabled dancer? The most powerful moment of performance I have ever had was an outdoor gig at a high stakes venue. You'll remember the difficulties and joys of dancing outside: being dazzled by the sun, yet frozen by any wind, the joys of the outdoor stage, the likely absence of wings, the absence of customary lighting, a sound system which both gives and takes the music you are accustomed to hearing. All that set against the freedom of the fresh air and the beauty of the sky and the trees. This performance had all of those aspects and an even scarier moment: an audience of over 900 people.

And boy, could they see us sweat, hear us breathe, sense our effort. They were so close that I could have touched them. So close that there was no hiding. So close that I worried. Outdoor stages don't have ramps, but they built one for us. I pushed up that ramp (trying to keep a neutral face) as my entrance approached. Sound check had been fine, but nothing had prepared me for the density of all those bodies. I barely recognized my cue.

The first couple of seconds for this piece are always a blank for me. This time, when I come to, I see my hand reaching slowly down to the wheel. I watch my fingers flare, feel my partner fly onto my back over the backrest. Thud. She's down. OK. Time to go; we're still on time. I pull back, making sure that the pull runs from my lat down to my finger. You'll remember. I stroke the tire as my fingers leave the wheel and gaze at the gazillions watching. We whirl through a turn, her leg comes up in a deep arabesque; I catch her heel, she retracts her leg, pulling me through. I suppress a giggle; she snorts: we hate the next bit.

The silence grows thicker from out there; the sun sinks slowly. They are with us. It's exhilarating. We couldn't push a wheel wrong -- no, not even if we tried. The balances work; the spacing works. The costume change works (yeah). And then, it's over. The last piece always makes me cry; I can't help it. We return to center stage, reach for each others' hands, and bow. Another one down.

Rehab and dance are not mutually exclusive; there's the work and there's the art. Your body hasn't forgotten. No, indeed, your body has its own music. Do you watch tv? OK. This is a little goofy, but in the most recent season of House (season 6 -- Broken Pt. 2 -- the talent show -- you can watch it on hulu for free), one of the patients appears on stage in the posture that has been used to characterize his psychiatric state. He makes the to "normals" off gestures that have been used to signify his insufficiency. I'm watching and realize that I hear sound. Each time he slaps his body, there's sound. Then, I realize that the slaps are intentional: out of his disability out of his body is coming music.

Your disabled body is not ugly. It is a beautiful thing. You can dance with it. Manual and/or powerchair. Your body can dance with paralysis, with spastic involuntary movement. Your wheelchair can float, glide, spin, stamp (yes, stamp!!), balance, perch, drag, pull, zoom, and you? You in your chair -- you can be an incredible dancer.

The NYT piece says you live in Minnesota right now. I don't know of any companies or instructors there. I don't know if you are still interested in dancing and teaching. It's a new life and a new body. Don't rush into anything. But if you ever want to dance again and are using your chair, know that there is a dance world out there. And we'd love to have you. If you like ballroom dancing -- there's ballroom dancing -- Wheelchair Dance Sport USA). There are modern dance companies -- AXIS Dance Company, Full Radius come to mind. Ballet: Dancing Wheels and Infinity Dance Theater. All these organizations have clips on youtube.

I don't know what's up for you next. How it's going or anything like that. I don't know if you will even see this. But if you do and if you want to be in touch, my email addy is in my profile.

Good luck!


Wheelchair Dancer


(Posted at Wheelchair Dancer)

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