Where’s the Wheelchair Dance in Pop Culture?

Television right now seems a bit obsessed with dance shows. From reality programming featuring dance competitions to original series about dance, everyone has dancing on the screen, and on the brain. There’s been a spillover into film, too, with a number of dance-themed movies in recent years. And we’ve seen a wide range of styles on display, including everything from classical ballet to jazz dance.

Well, almost everything. Because there’s one discipline of dance that I almost never see represented in pop culture, and its absence is notable, striking, and, honestly, rather painful, because it amounts to an erasure not just of a specific style of dance, but of a whole community, as well. I’m speaking, of course, of wheelchair dance, performed all over the world in a huge number of venues and a variety of styles, from extremely avant-garden modern pieces to more classical ballroom and tango.

Yet, to look at pop culture, you’d think wheelchair dance doesn’t exist. Glee notably seemed to think it came up with the idea all on its own, without so much as a nod to the fact that disabled dance companies exist all over the world, and many more people perform on their own, dance with friends, and participate in dance competitions. Yes, wheelchair dancers compete; another thing you wouldn’t pick up on from pop culture. Despite the popularity of dance competition shows and danceoff movies, it’s very, very rare to see a wheelchair user competing, or to see wheelchair dancers showcasing their best moves.

There are, of course, a few exceptions. So You Think You Can Dance featured two performers from AXIS Dance Company, an integrated dance company that includes disabled performers. Musical Chairs is a film that, astoundingly, is actually all about wheelchair dance, and has a number of members of the disability community excited. On Push Girls, viewers have an opportunity to see dance performances by Auti Angel, Tiphany, Mia, and Chelsie. These are just three works, though, in comparison to a tide of nondisabled dance, and with the exception of So You Think You Can Dance, they don’t have very large audiences; Musical Chairs, for example, has not exactly enjoyed a wide distribution.

So, why is the representation of wheelchair dance in pop culture so poor? Some of it is clearly lack of awareness; many of the people creating pop culture for the masses have no idea that wheelchair dance even exists and they seem genuinely shocked by the discovery that it does, and that it has numerous performers, fans, and even its own celebrities. Wheelchair dance is like a subculture within the larger dance community, just like disability culture is a minority subculture.

As a performance art, it’s also one that challenges social attitudes and notions about dance. Disabled people aren’t supposed to be able to dance, aren’t supposed to enjoy moving within their bodies, aren’t supposed to have intimate and communicative relationships with their muscles and bones. They aren’t supposed to be able to enjoy the same things nondisabled people do, and they certainly aren’t supposed to be good at those things; wheelchair dance does not provoke feelings of pity and gooey smiles about how nice it is to see ‘them’ trying to do something, because it’s an art. And a sport. It requires skill, physical discipline, training, strength, coordination, and partnership with members of your dance company, partnership, or team.

This seems to terrify some nondisabled people, who can’t conceive of a world in which disabled people don’t strive to do something as ‘normally’ as possible. In wheelchair dance, the wheelchair is part of the dance, as an extension of the dancer’s body, as an integrated part of the choreography and the visual themes presented to the viewer. It is not something to be hidden or ashamed of. Likewise with other mobility aids, like canes, crutches, braces, and any other devices members of a dance company might be using. The relationship between dancers and their mobility aids is one of harmony, not constant battle, or bitterness. It’s complex and beautiful and becomes a reminder that bodies move and function in many different ways, and no one way is better than any other.

There seems to be an assumption that wheelchair dance wouldn’t appeal to a larger audience, and thus doesn’t have a role in pop culture. A competition show, or reality series following a dance company, or a straight scripted drama (or comedy!) with disabled dancers wouldn’t attract the same kind of viewership, is the rationale. Unless, of course, the disabilities were used as either the butts of jokes or the seat of inspirational wisdom intended to evoke misty eyes among viewers. And most creators of pop culture would have to grudgingly admit that these uses of disability wouldn’t be sustainable in, say, a long-term scripted drama, where viewers would eventually expect something other than tragedy porn.

Seeing a show where dancers are independent and interdependent, dealing with the daily lives of living with disability while also performing and making connections with other artists, might be too much for nondisabled audiences. But it also might not be, and there’s no way to tell until people are actually exposed to the concept and given a chance to decide for themselves. Why not include a pair of wheelchair dancers on a dance competition show? Why not do a miniseries following a disabled dance company through the development and production of a new piece? Why not really go out on a limb and develop a pilot for a dance show that revolves (haha) around wheelchair dance, challenging the assumptions of both network heads and the viewers?

And in all of those cases, you’d better be planning on casting actual disabled dancers in those roles.