CounterBalance 2015, Alice Sheppard and Laurel Lawson Credit: Lisa Green

“I’ve been a dancer all my life,” says CounterBalance founder Ginger Lane. Trained primarily in ballet, Lane performed, taught, choreographed, and briefly owned a dance studio in Wilmette before a spinal cord injury in 1984 resulted in quadriplegia. Yet Lane did not allow her injury to sideline her. Instead, she channeled her creative energy into independent living and disability rights at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (now the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab), where she provided peer support services and disability awareness training, before joining the independent living center Access Living to coordinate its Arts and Culture Project in 2008. As part of the initiative to feature art and events by artists with disabilities—including visual art, cabaret, readings, theater, and an annual battle-of-the-bands—Lane was determined to bring dance to Access and accessibility to dance.

Though Lane’s vision was ambitious from the start, Access Living was designed for accessibility but not designed to accommodate dance. “The first several years we had CounterBalance, we had to rent a dance floor. We had to bring in lighting from outside. We had to put blackout shades on the windows. It was a big conference room—and everything was very haphazard and make-do,” she remembers. As CounterBalance outgrew its first home, it migrated to a variety of locations, including the National Museum of Mexican Art and Victory Gardens. Center on Halsted made a five-year pledge to host the performance at their Hoover-Leppen Theatre in 2018. 

Now in its tenth production, the first CounterBalance concert featured Dance>Detour, Chicago’s first physically integrated dance company, as well as Oak Park dance company MOMENTA, which became physically integrated in 2003. Over the years, CounterBalance has featured a stellar roster of dancers with and without disabilities, including butoh dancer Wannapa P-Eubanks, Portland’s Wobbly Dance, disabled dance luminaries Alice Sheppard and the late Lisa Bufano, and guest artists from Israel and South Korea. The event gradually expanded from a single performance into multiple days of performances and workshops.

Though CounterBalance brings nationally and internationally renowned dancers and dance companies to Chicago, the heart of the event is local. “CounterBalance has been focused on providing opportunities for local dancers and choreographers with disabilities to give a voice where there was no opportunity to be produced on that scale,” says codirector of CounterBalance Ladonna Freidheim. Founder of ReinventAbility, which offers dance classes and other trainings to promote inclusion, as well as a company member with Momenta, Freidheim performed in the first CounterBalance concert in 2008. Like Lane, Freidheim trained in classical ballet. A degenerative disability and several surgeries landed her in rehabilitation with wheelchair athletes at the University of Illinois. 

“I was introduced to disability culture there,” she says, remembering with a smile how she began to dance with them. “I had lost my dance world. I wanted to fit into theirs. Their impulse was that they wanted to go out to clubs—we were in college—and pick up girls! So they went along with it.” Freidheim credits Dance>Detour founder Alana Wallace with bringing dance back into her life. “I get around with leg braces and a cane most of the time. Alana taught me to dance in my chair so I could rejoin the world of dance. Dance is freedom—freedom of the soul, as corny as that sounds!”

“Dance, like any artistic endeavor, allows people to express themselves,” says Lane. “The arts enrich life, they enrich the spirit, and sometimes they hold up a mirror to life. Part of the impetus for integrated dance was to help dispel stereotypes and myths about people with disabilities, who have traditionally been shuttered away in a room, a closet, a hospital, and not seen in public. As dancers, we’re on display all the time—and with disabilities, we’re even more on display. We’re saying, ‘Here I am. I’m doing my thing—you make your own judgment about whether you like what you see or not. You can decide for yourselves whether the lives we live have value or not.’ We dance because it’s what we do. We dance because it’s who we are.”

“And it’s a huge part of society,” adds Freidheim. “We dance at weddings, we dance at dances. It’s part of life. If you’re excluded from that—if people say, ‘We don’t need an elevator.This is a dance studio!’, which I’ve heard a lot—you’re not part of society.”

This year’s CounterBalance, copresented by Access Living, MOMENTA, Bodies of Work (a consortium of 50 cultural, academic, health care, and social organizations based in UIC’s Department of Disability and Human Development), and Studiothread (an organization specializing in digital development for nonprofits), takes place online from October 7-11. It features inclusive dance workshops, a panel discussion on the history of integrated dance, a video compilation of pieces from past CounterBalance performances, new short films, a tribute to Lane, and a dance jam. 

Reflecting on past productions, Lane and Freidheim cite experiences that bring dancers and choreographers of different generations, with and without disabilities, together to learn from one another. Learning to dance and learning to choreograph for dancers with disabilities is inevitably a collaborative process, notes Lane. “I had to learn to set choreography on what my dancers could do, rather than my perception. So dance that is created for dancers with and without disabilities is much more of a collaborative process between the choreographer, dancers, and musicians, rather than from the top down.”

Collaboration and inclusion have always been keywords for CounterBalance, and with performances and workshops moving online, Freidheim sees even greater possibilities for the future. “This online ability we’re all developing includes people who could not be included for reasons of disability, economics, location—what a wonderful opportunity! It’ll cost a little extra to do a show that’s also being broadcast, but it can be done. We’re opening up how we can share what we do and how we can collaborate with choreographers across the country because we’re all teaching over Zoom. I believe this will bring about greater understanding in society of anyone who’s different.”  v