Beginning with the title, it’s hard not to feel welcomed by Invitation to Dance, a new documentary by Simi Linton and Christian von Tippelskirch that screened last Saturday at the Margaret Meade Film Festival in New York City. It invites us into a world where the freeing, sensuous power of dance is available to many different kinds of bodies. It invites us to see how the movements of people in wheelchairs, people with the rolling gait of cerebral palsy, people with one arm or leg, people with conjoined fingers, crutches, braces, and all manner of adaptive devices challenge the ways the able bodied have defined what counts as dance. As it does so, Invitation to Dance tells a story about movement as a form of self-expression and as the collective public actions of people with disabilities demanding the right to access and inclusion.
When Simi Linton became a wheelchair user following a car accident that killed her husband and best friend in 1972, she knew nothing of the movement for disability rights that was just emerging in the United States. She dutifully completed her rehab program, went home, and accepted that there were things she just couldn’t do anymore. When she found herself excluded from social gatherings, classrooms, restaurants, and public transportation, she understood that she was the problem. To ask that a class be moved, sidewalks equipped with curb cuts, or bathroom stalls expanded seemed embarrassingly narcissistic.
Decades later, as a teacher and public speaker, Linton tells audience members to raise their left hands in the air. “This hand is society,” she tells them. “Now, make your right hand into a fist. That’s the person with a disability.” Traditionally, our attention has focused on the way the fist of disability fails to fit the outstretched hand of society. When the fist doesn’t conform, she explains, we say its failures and limitations are to blame. Disability studies—and the disability rights movement that inspired it—focuses on how the hand of society creates barriers to access and imagines how it could be more accommodating to bodies and minds that are different from the norm.
Invitation to Dance tells the story of Linton’s conversion from fist to hand as her life and work intersected with a broader movement for the rights of people with disabilities. Linton was an activist even before her accident, and her affiliation with disability rights is a natural outgrowth of her involvement in the women’s and anti-war movements. Her story is intercut with footage showing important moments in its history such as activists crawling up the steps of the U.S. Capitol building and the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
Invitation to Dance is also about less visible forms of discrimination. Most public bathrooms, Linton explains to a group of design students (gathered for an unconventional teaching moment in a public bathroom), don’t hang mirrors at a level where a wheelchair user can see her reflection. When Linton’s husband needed emergency surgery, there were no wheelchair-accessible taxis. Forced to take a public bus, she arrived too late to see him before the operation. When she visited Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, she found an attractive entrance ramp curving up the side of the building. Attractive, but not useful, Linton notes as the camera travels up the ramp, capturing the perspective of a wheelchair user. Through her eyes, we see how its high walls and narrow width cut the wheelchair user off from her companions and other building traffic. Once inside, Linton discovered the restaurant was accessible only by stairs. Contrast the unwelcoming design of Disney Hall with the bright openness of the Guggenheim Museum, built with a ramp as its central feature rather than a necessary afterthought. We see Linton and her friend, dancer Alice Sheppard, rolling through the Guggenheim, chairs and bodies moving in a graceful synchrony.
Documentary footage of Linton’s childhood shows a girl constantly in motion. After her accident, Linton believed that chapter of her life was over. Her body in a chair was incompatible with dance. Watching the Tea Dances at Fire Island in the 1970s gave her the first glimmer of hope that she would dance again. And dance she did, at parties, in the streets, and in the ballroom space of the Society for Disability Studies conferences. According the Linton, dance is a powerful means to include people with disabilities and recognize their capacity for self-expression. Dance has everything to do with sexuality, public visibility, reclaiming space, and access to a life richer than just a struggle for basic survival. Invitation showcases the great variety of dance that can fall under the rubric of disability, from the gorgeously choreographed performances of Homer Avila and the AXIS dance company to the rougher more confrontational work of the GIMP project and lively, improvised dances at private parties and conferences.
Invitation to Dance intercuts scenes of disabled bodies in vibrant, sensuous motion with scenes of professors and activists talking about issues of access, disability rights, and the power and meaning of dance as a form of cultural expression. But their eloquence risks obscuring the role dance has played for those who lack the ability to express themselves with verbal speech or writing. Focusing on the professional and social circles that define Linton’s orbit, Invitation to Dance doesn’t mention dance troupes that incorporate people with intellectual disabilities such as Karen Peterson, Restless Dance Theatre (Australia), Jolt Dance (New Zealand), or Anjali Dance Company (UK). The work of these groups proves that dancers with autism, Down syndrome, and other intellectual disabilities are equally passionate and capable of using their bodies as a means of self-expression, even if they are less verbally adept.
Noting the film’s omissions, I’m aware of how this is Simi Linton’s party. She is a charming, articulate, and irascible host and her celebration is well deserved. A scene near the end finds Linton, Sheppard, and dancer Lezlee Frye in a bar following a performance. Here are three good friends laughing, drinking, and having a grand time. Sheppard rolls her eyes with exasperation at how frequently (literally, every day) she is called “inspirational” for doing ordinary things. Frye mocks an audience member who described her performance as “so inspirational and sad.” The three women dissolve into helpless laughter. There is something a bit unkind about making fun of this spectator’s earnest and, no doubt, well-meaning response. But given the long history of people with disabilities being reduced to figures of pity or inspiration, we must surely agree that these women—talented, powerful, and, yes, flawed like the rest of us—are entitled this private moment of comradeship and levity. Invitation to Dance lets us share that moment and to feel, for an hour or so, that we have been allowed to join their party.
—Rachel Adams likes to have her cake and eat it too.