The 2019 Chicago Inclusive Dance Festival
The 2019 Chicago Inclusive Dance Festival Credit: Courtesy the Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities

“I don’t think there’s much difference between dance and everyday movement except for intent,” says dancer Robby Lee Williams. “Are you feeling out some rhythm, some music in your head? Or adding different qualities if you have an emotion?” A conversation with Sarah Najera, artistic director of Oak Park integrated dance company MOMENTA, sparked his recent exploration. “We were talking about how putting your pants on could be a dance movement. For example, you’re standing up straight, you need to grab your pants off the floor and kick one leg through. If you’re standing you usually kick straight down. But you have a lot of options: you could kick at a low angle, high, out to the side. The movements translate; it just depends on what you want to do with them. I was like, ‘Oh yeah! That could extend to everything else.'”

Williams was in rehabilitation from an injury when he first attended the Chicago Inclusive Dance Festival in 2019. “I’m a gunshot wound survivor,” he says. A performer with Tango 21 Dance Theater, Williams was paired with a physical therapist at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab who had been a professional dancer. “We started looking around for what was available as far as integrated dance goes.” Upon learning of the CIDF, he attended with the entire Argentine tango troupe. Now also a dancer with MOMENTA, Williams returns to the CIDF to lead a workshop that combines poetry and adaptive movement to translate everyday movements into dance and allow participants of all abilities to move together. 

Translation is a core principle of the Chicago Inclusive Dance Festival. Founder and curator Deborah Goodman says, “We try to find and use terms to allow diverse bodies to take direction. Everybody can locomote across a stage in one way or another. Instead of saying I want you to feel your feet, I might say, I want you to feel your base of support. Everybody is sitting on a base of support. And all of dance is about a shift of weight. So when you’re shifting from a base of support, everybody can dance.”

Goodman, who danced with MOMENTA and coteaches inclusive EveryBody Can Dance workshops with dancer Kris Lenzo, was tapped to begin the CIDF in 2018, shortly after meeting Sarah Furnish, artistic director of Iowa-based Infinity Dance Company at the Midwest Convening of Physically Integrated Dance. The Midwest Convening was created by founding teaching artist of the Parkinson’s Project at Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and Loyola dance lecturer Sarah Cullen Fuller. Furnish “cooked up the idea that there had to be a festival, some way we could bring more disabled people and more diverse bodies to the field of dance,” recalls Goodman. The two brainstormed long-distance, and, when Goodman sought advice on how to proceed from MOMENTA, founder and then-artistic director Stephanie Clemens offered that MOMENTA could cosponsor the event, along with Access Living and the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities, as a sister festival to CounterBalance, an annual concert of integrated dance. 

“The idea of the festival was to bring more diverse bodies into dance, to highlight and encourage the training that is happening in Chicago, and to be a networking opportunity for people who are doing this work to connect and spark new ideas,” says Goodman. Crucial to this work is the power of dance to inspire. During the first festival, MOMENTA dancer and CounterBalance founder Ginger Lane led a choreography workshop for anyone who wanted to join, to create a new work performed in the fall concert called Community Piece. An annual showcase of films and performances also highlights possibility and creativity. “At the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities, they work all the time with people with disabilities. They’re trying to help them survive. They had never seen disabled bodies in excellence. We were showing dance videos all day, including one from [Portland, Oregon multidisciplinary performance company] Wobbly Dance. They said, ‘We’re just trying to get people up the steps, and here you have them climbing walls!'”

Now in its third year (after a pandemic hiatus in 2020), the CIDF has expanded to a three-day series of remote workshops and film screenings. The program features a keynote address on sustainable choreography by dance artist and UIC Department of Disability and Human Development graduate student Maggie Bridger; movement workshops by Williams, vogue performer Willyum LaBeija, and DanceAbility instructors Sydney Erlikh and Stefanie Piatkewicz; and an autism movement workshop for children led by AccepDance founder Susan Ojala Myers

“Robby Lee Williams and Willyum LaBeija won awards with [disability arts and culture network] Bodies of Work and 3Arts,” says Goodman. “They were being trained to teach, and they had to present. Bodies of Work assumed they’d present at the festival. I was like, ‘I don’t have it in me to do it,’ and they were like, ‘No, you have to.’ So now it’s something the community needs.”

Williams describes an approach to teaching shaped both by the techniques he has learned as a dancer and collaborative experiences in theater, improv, and poetry. “I love improv because there’s a focus on verbal and nonverbal communication in being able to see, feel, and understand where your scene partners are going. Going into tango felt really natural because a lot of it is feeling your partner and responding to them. At Tango 21, the philosophy is that dance is a conversation. You’re not just moving on your own. It’s not about you, it’s about the dance. At MOMENTA, I lucked out. My first EveryBody Can Dance workshop with them was a couple weeks after the CIDF. I was paired with [MOMENTA dancer] Julia Cox, and the improvisational exercises, mirroring, partnering, just worked with her. I think there’s something added when you’re able to move, feel, understand whoever you’re dancing with. I want to continue sharing that. I want everybody to be able to dance.”

LaBeija will teach a vogue workshop focusing on hand performance. “The art of voguing is all about confidence, self-expression, and telling a story,” he says. “Though vogue performance is normally a competitive style of dance, I’ve focused on infusing my aesthetic with other genres of dance—including contemporary and color guard—while keeping true to its history.”

“One stereotype that [disabled dancer and choreographer] Alice Sheppard has talked about breaking is that disabled bodies are always in crisis. Disabled bodies are not always in crisis,” says Goodman. “Humans have so much richness and depth, and dance is the perfect vehicle for describing the human condition.”  v