Increasing Disability Leadership in Community Arts Programs through Co-Mentoring by Shay Erlich

By Shay Erlich

In disability arts there is frequently a chicken and egg question that we have yet to satisfactorily address. How do we increase disability leadership in the arts when disabled artists face so many barriers to even being recognized as artists? Additionally, how do we provide opportunities for disabled artists to emerge as leaders when the basic conditions for them to hone their craft in spaces that meet their needs are offered sporadically and not easily available within Canada?

Part of the reason this question has yet to be answered is that we haven’t figured out an approach that lets us address it in a way that could be easily replicated across contexts. The answer is highly dependent on the art form, the individual capacity of the artists attempting to emerge as leaders, and the work that each individual art sector has done to embrace the participation and emerging leadership of disabled artists.

Shay Erlich & Jenna Roy, Porch View Dances, 2018 (photo: Kim Simon)

Working as a wheelchair dancer in Toronto, I would say there is little infrastructure to support disability leadership in the city’s dance community. Many of our prominent dance venues, including the Toronto Dance Theatre and Dovercourt House, are completely inaccessible. As dancers, we (Cyborg Circus Project co-founder Jenna Roy and I) are for the most part cut off from the structures that would help us develop technique and skill, and would typically mentor us through to teaching opportunities as our careers progress. Furthermore, this structural exclusion from the dance community in Ontario, and many parts of Canada, has resulted in generations of dance teachers and professionals who have never had to contend with teaching disabled dancers or fostering disabled leadership. Even when classes are held in accessible locations, teachers frequently require basic instruction in how to adapt their teaching approach to our bodies and capabilities, and limit our dance potential due to a lack of imagination about the potential for exploration that disabled bodies provide. We often find ourselves in the dual position of teacher-learner where we must first instruct our instructors before we can receive even a minimum of adequate instruction.

We have also been incredibly fortunate to take advantage of several opportunities to train in the United States with other disabled dancers, including the wonderful Alice Sheppard and Laurel Lawson of Kinetic Light. These were the few instances where we felt as though our bodies were expected to be in the space, and focused attention could be paid on technique and skill development. In these spaces, we could just be dancers, there to do our own job, not provide consulting services. However, due to the distance and expense associated with attending such training opportunities, it isn’t realistic to build a dance career on the basis of being able to sporadically train internationally.

Cyborg Circus Projects, In Situ (rehearsal), 2018 (photo: Nettie Siep)

One of the essential moves for us as a company was to work to build capacity within the dance community to teach disabled dancers in a way that centers on their experience and needs. This was daunting at first because neither of us thought we could teach a class on our own with our current level of experience and training. We also hadn’t worked with any local dance instructors who we felt were currently up to the task of teaching this class without substantial mentorship in creating accessible classes for disabled dancers. But we began to imagine a model where we did not have to be the only source of expertise. By diffusing the responsibility for full expertise across a team of instructors, we could successfully build capacity and leadership for disability dance among disabled and non-disabled dancers alike.

Project Disruption, our first community program, operates with such a co-mentorship leadership model. This twelve-week movement program for disabled young people aged 16 to 25 includes a public performance opportunity for participants at the end of the session. Jen and I are stable facilitators for the duration of the program alongside a team of professional dancers who deepen the quality of dance instruction that we will be able to offer. The partnership between us and the guest instructors is paramount as we are all responsible for collaborating on our own individual areas of expertise to ensure that the program is safe and accessible.

Cyborg Circus Projects, In Situ (rehearsal), 2018 (photo: Nettie Siep)

While Jen and I are by no means experts on every single disability and adaptation possible, and are still relative newcomers to the dance community, what we do have is more than a decade of experience listening to and working collaboratively with disabled people to problem solve how barriers can be reduced and full participation can be realized. We recognize the harm that is caused by people with well-meaning attitudes who do not have the skills, knowledge, and expertise necessary to respectfully and collaboratively work with disabled people. Our work actively seeks to avoid creating circumstances where this type of harm will be possible. For this reason, Project Disruption does not and cannot resemble dance classes as they have previously existed within our community. Our approach is to structure activities in a way that is both universally designed as well as individually adjusted to ensure everyone is included in all aspects of the program. We don’t require that all of our students participate in every activity in the exact same manner, but we analyze activities to determine their focus and work from there to find ways that everyone can achieve similar outcomes even if the process is different. We believe it is more important to all get to a final goal together rather than all have taken the exact same pathway to get there. Working in this way allows for new ideas around inclusive dance pedagogies to emerge and equips our entire team of facilitators and guest artists to create more inclusive dance learning opportunities throughout the city moving forward.

This model represents one method of how leadership development can occur for disabled artists. While it is the method that best suits where we are at in our own leadership development, it is not necessarily the solution that is right for increasing disability leadership in every area of the arts community, and explicitly ignores the realities of those who wish to have leadership positions in the arts that are not actively artist/leadership roles, such as curators, arts administrators, etc. Those roles fall outside of our area of expertise; however, the conversation is only beginning and as more disability leadership emerges within the arts sector, I am sure that new models will continue to develop. Much like Project Disruption seeks to disrupt what a dance class typically looks like, I am certain that disability leadership in the arts sector will continue to disrupt and redefine what leadership is and has the potential to become.

Shay Erlich is a wheelchair dancer, community practitioner, and performance art critic. They have recently co-founded the Cyborg Circus Project (a disability led dance and circus company) with their partner Jenna Roy. Their writing on disability art can be found at the-wheelchair-critic.tumblr.com as well as in publications such as NOW Toronto and The Dance Current.