This Is How They Roll

Physically integrated dance companies blur lines, cross barriers


| January-February 2011


The last act of the performance opened with a dark stage backlit with dusk-blue. To the sound of a pulsing Maori keening chant with techno highlights, wheelchair dancer Rodney Bell slowly descended onto the stage via cables. Sometimes dangling upside down, sometimes appearing to somersault, Bell, paraplegic, gyrated along the way. He slapped his chest and thighs—warlike gestures punctuated with grunts—and when he finally had all four wheels on the ground, his face, painted with traditional tattoos, appeared to the audience. The dance, sensual and aggressive, might have been a holy ritual.

Bell’s performance was part of a 2008 work by the Oakland, California, dance project Sins Invalid.

“In the opening piece I’m portrayed as being crucified and get carried up into the air off the stage,” says Bell, 39, a New Zealand native. “So in the last piece I come down. Inside I felt like one of the Maori weather gods, descending from being crucified, and also coming back empowered as a person with a disability, with my full sexuality and sensuality intact.”

Although Bell participates in Sins Invalid performances, his day job is as a professional dancer with AXIS Dance, a physically integrated Oakland dance company.

Physically integrated dance is performed by people with and without disabilities, together on the same stage or as part of the same piece of choreography. Each company is different, depending on its region and audience, but many of them have in common a strong sense of athleticism and aestheticism.

“Art is what changes the world, and it’s wonderful to change people’s ideas by giving them dance rather than telling them they should think or feel a certain way. They get to watch us and stare at us for two hours and come to their own conclusions,” says Judith Smith, artistic director of AXIS Dance, who became a quadriplegic at age 17 as a result of a car accident. “It was through dance that I learned all those things I didn’t learn in rehab. Dance completely changed my relationship to my body, my muscle strength, my balance, my coordination, all of that.”