by: Jacqueline Boxx
There’s a reason that I’m a career student (someday I’ll finish this dissertation), and that reason is that I love to learn. Every new perspective adds to my view of myself as a performer and a dancer, and I have taken some truly mind-blowing workshops from other performers on hair-styling, allyship, torso articulation, prop fabrication, acting techniques and what the phrase “classic” really means. However, as a dancer, I am always just a bit extra interested in movement-heavy workshops that offer new phrases to add to my existing body language.
The issue is that, as a disabled burlesque performer, it is a lot more difficult to find movement workshops that will readily welcome me. It involves research, communication through a number of channels until speaking with an instructor directly, and then various negotiation to determine whether it will be worth it or not for me to pay the registration fee. There are always more workshops in the world than we have the finances to accommodate, so registering before this research takes place is usually not an option. The truth is that, even after a lot of discussion, many times it just doesn’t work out and I miss out on what could have been an incredibly valuable learning opportunity.
Obviously it should go without saying that there are some workshops (or rather elements of movement-heavy workshops) that can’t be modified for accessibility, but since it’s something that people are likely thinking right now, I will say it anyway. Yes, if you want to teach this particular ballet-inflected leap, then that movement can’t be replicated by a student in a wheelchair.
But there are some fairly easy steps that every instructor can take to make their workshop more accessible to attendees with disabilities, limitations or injuries. These five steps could make your workshop instantly more appealing and have a broader draw.
- Begin every workshop by verbally encouraging people to move or not move in their space however they need to in order to be comfortable, and to always respect their own best practices.
Many disabilities, limitations or injuries are not visible. It could be very painful for one of your attendees to sit in a chair for an extended period of time, or stand for the full length of your description. Some conditions require standing up and stretching every ten minutes, or even continuous movement. By beginning your workshop with this disclaimer, that you encourage everyone in that room to do what is necessary for their comfort and to not do anything that might injure them, you are assuring them that you value their needs. We all know how uncomfortable it can be when you’re in a class where everyone is on their fiftieth push-up (or what have you) and you have collapsed to the mat at number twenty. It feels like the eyes of the class are on you, judging you as “weak” or incapable because you physically can’t do what it seems like everyone around you can. Injuring yourself by trying can seem preferable to the stares that sitting out invites. Sure, that fear may be unwarranted and those stares might be entirely imagined. It can make a huge difference to the comfort level of everyone in the room, however, if you say right at the beginning that you don’t judge, and that you understand that we all have different bodily needs.
- Avoid unconscious ableism in reference to workshop activities whenever you can, i.e. avoid describing how you then “walk” to this area or “must” begin this activity standing. Instead, talk about the root of where these movements begin and say that expressing that core movement in walking or standing is optional/available if you are able.
This comes in two parts: one simple, and one more complex. Simple first! When an instructor asks everyone at a workshop to “now stand,” there’s definitely a small, internal part of me that cringes. By just adding “if you are able” to many of your directions, you can increase your workshop’s accessibility to those with various mobility constraints. It acknowledges that standing and walking are not the “default” human condition. Think about that last sentence for a moment and how difficult it can be to feel like the freak in the room, the odd one out, the grit in the machine. Standing and walking are not the “default” abilities. There are no default abilities. There are infinitely variable ways in which to be a human and to be a performer. Showing that you acknowledge that as an instructor could mean the world to someone who has been struggling silently for a long time.
The more complex version of this is understanding that every movement has a core impulse. It can make a movement-heavy workshop more accessible to first emphasize the internal sensation that leads to external articulation. A graceful arm extension comes from the shoulder, which is connected to the chest – how could that movement translate for a performer without the use of their arms? It could manifest as a core inclination of their torso, possibly accompanied by head movement. When creating the syllabus for a movement workshop, consider focusing back down on the root of each movement before adding on the outward articulation that you’re familiar with. Your students can then add the layers that they are comfortable adding. This brings us to Doing Your Own Homework.
- Offer modifications wherever possible. Do the work to think of these ahead of time. Where you don’t have one, encourage experimenting with modification in class.
It has been suggested to me that the quantity and quality of extra effort it requires for me to engage with a movement-heavy workshop from a wheelchair is “natural” or “to be expected.” I ask these people to consider the already depleted stores of energy that I have due to battling a disability, in addition to the cost of the workshop that could instead have gone toward doctor’s visits, therapeutic massages, medication, or other means of lowering my daily pain threshold. I value learning and improving as a performer and a dancer, which is why I love taking workshops and will continue using them as a tool. It could help workshop attendees immensely if instructors took the time when constructing their syllabus to consider a couple of different modifications that they know could achieve similar results based on various limitations. There are many benefits to this being in the instructor’s realm rather than the student’s. One is that the instructor knows best what exact outcome they are hoping for. Modifications that they offer will likely be able to more closely approximate this outcome than something that a student comes up with when on the spot. Another benefit is that it demonstrates to workshop attendees that this instructor has well-defined and broad expertise. Planning for various possible outcomes shows strong pedagogical technique and inspires trust that this instructor truly knows their field. It also demonstrates concern about what the workshop experience is like for attendees. Instructors putting in this extra time and effort will seem more like someone a student would want to keep coming back to.
Again, obviously it is impossible to come up with every potential modification for every potential situation. There will be someone whose particular disability or injury is not one that you’d accounted for and you have to relinquish the reins back to that student. However, a quick comment that you encourage modification on this basic movement, even if you don’t have specific ideas to offer, can make your workshop feel more like a safe space. The best workshops that I have attended have been ones where instructors encourage each attendee to put their own flavor as a performer onto the basic movements provided. Everyone has an element to their style that is unique – this is just acknowledging adaptation as natural.
- Take time to give one-on-one attention to attendees using various modifications.
While encouraging adaptation and modification is an excellent idea, it can sometimes lead to a room where nobody knows if they’re doing a “good job” – after all, it’s completely different than what is happening to their left and right. Is this even in the right ballpark? I greatly appreciate moments of one-on-one guidance from instructors no matter what, but it can be especially helpful when you’re encouraging or offering various alternatives on a theme. Take the time to ask questions if you’re worried about offending someone – asking “is it possible to move this here” is not a bad thing, and it’s definitely better than passing over that person entirely. Workshops are also always a learning process for instructors as well as students. Learn about a new way to switch up one of your burlesque staples and, in the process, validate that this is an art form that is truly for all bodies. Comfortable and safe movements can be sexy! It just might require a bit of extra thought.
- Mention all limitations and address the workshop’s accessibility in the description of the class that you offer to the public.
This is the most important piece of advice that I have to offer. In fact, this is a desperate plea. Even if you do not change a single thing about your workshop, and you believe that it absolutely requires attendees be able-bodied, please address this in the description of your workshop. The research that I described at the beginning of this article, the back-and-forth emailing for specifics of my medical condition and suggestions for modifications, could all be eliminated by one or two extra lines in the description of the workshop that is offered to the public. For example, “This workshop requires attendees be able-bodied and able to squat, jump and kneel.” Or, “This workshop incorporates standing and walking but offers modifications.” If statements like these could be used in more class descriptions, then potential students could more confidently assess their capabilities and match them to classes that they would like to attend. More students would attend a class if they knew exactly which of their physical limitations on that day could impact their class experience. (As a sidenote, BurlyCon is now accepting applications for presenters until April 5th, and I would love to see some more mentions of accessibility in the program of this fantastic event!)
As always, I want to specify that I speak in this article from personal experience and not for the entire disabled community. There are so many varieties of experiences along the disabled spectrum and there is undoubtedly more that could be taken into account when it comes to teaching for maximum accessibility. However, these five steps could certainly go a long way toward demonstrating that burlesque does not exclude the disabled, and that we as performers and instructors do not discriminate against those with bodies not exactly like ours.
Want more from Jacqueline Boxx? What My Use of a Wheelchair “Means” as Miss Disa-Burly-TEASE