Monday, November 8, 2010


This year, the Chicago Humanities Festival integrated four or five events with a strong disability narrative into its festival showcase. One piece of the programming was a performance of GIMP, a project of Heidi Latsky Dance. GIMP (here is a review in the Chicago Tribune) is a modern dance routine that includes about six dancers, at least three of whom are people with disabilities. I had seen GIMP in 2009, the only other time it was performed in Chicago. I was very excited to watch the performance again. I am not a huge fan of modern dance or any type of dance. But to me, GIMP embodies the vision of disability rights. The dancers perform upon a stage on which disability and non-disability are equal and integrated. But for a few minutes of the performance when I believe the audience was forced to focus on one dancer's disability, the routine is not about trumpeting disability. It's about bringing together on one stage people who want to dance and people who have worked very hard in order to dance.

Of course, by its very nature, the performance forces an audience to examine disability, or at the very least examine the notion of the body. After the performance, the dancers all returned to the stage for a question and answer session with the audience. During the session, the founder of the company, Heidi Latsky, talked about the dancing world. She, and a male dancer, explained that traditionally, dance is about people with exquisite bodies (tall, slender, toned) perfecting very nuanced, delicate and athletic motions. But with GIMP, the stage is filled with dancers whose bodies don't fall under the traditional norms of exquisite. The dancers showcase both the 'normal' and 'impaired' pieces of their bodies. One dancer said that the project is about moving the pieces of our bodies that are vulnerable. Vulnerable because society teaches us to hide the disabled, or less exquisite, pieces of ourselves and showcase the most high functioning piece of ourselves. With that in mind, another dancer said that people with physical disabilities are taught to operate between the chin and the top of the head. In other words, let the mind compensate for what ails the body. GIMP highlights the body, no matter the body type. I think the challenge is creating a piece of work that, standing alone - separate any connection to disability, is beautiful. Except for the moment of the routine I mention above, I think they did it.

For how thrilling I thought the performance was last night, what may stick with me longer than memories of the dancers moving on stage is another message one of the dancers sent during the question and answer piece. At one point he said something to the affect of, "inhabit your body like never before." He meant be proud of it. Show it off. Use it. For all marginalized groups, but for purposes of this blog, especially people with dwarfism, those are very important words. By popular culture, and by the community in which we live, too often people with dwarfism are delivered a message that our bodies are, at best, something to hide, and at worst, the punchline of a joke. Unfortunately, this message is often delivered with about as much candor as a frying pan pounded over our heads. Keeping the words of the GIMP dancer in mind is easier said than done when confronted with bigotry. I certainly can't do it all the time. But if one is able to remember the words, even in the face of pain, I think it makes a difference. And until the rest of the world reflects the stage on which GIMP is performed, those words will be an important resource.


  1. Instinct for survival, not society teaches us to hide our weaknesses and 'disabilities', although society may reinforce it, don't you think?

    Can you really be 'proud' of (or take pleasurable satisfaction in) a congenital arm defect, a limp, dwarfism, etc? Proud seems a short of reactionary, extreme defiance against the bigotry and intolerance you describe. Especially, when it's not necessarily societally taught bigotry and intolerance you're facing. Many people even if they're not intolerant per se, they're just never going to think it's a good thing. A desirable thing. But, maybe, you need a little dash of pride/defiance mixed in to help people cope. A defensive mechanism.

    Although it seems what's really being sought is acceptance. Self acceptance and societal acceptance. That, without the abrasive pride packaging would be achievable and understandable.

  2. In addition, I think there would be more sexual representation for dwarves in movies, if there was just more dwarves. When there aren't any, people are just stuck in the novelty of it all, and all the awkward thoughts of if they have romantic relationships, how they live, etc. With more familiarity there would be less of that, and more normalizing.

    How to get more dwarves in movies? Well, I think someone would have write it and maybe reality TV is paving the way.

  3. I guess I would disagree. Instinct for survival comes from actions and messages of the world around us. So it's society teaching us to hide what is considered 'not normal.' Our instinct for survival is how we respond. And yes. I think we can be proud of our bodies, no matter the type. In order to fight back against the bigotry, I think we have to find pride in the physical and psychological of who we are.

  4. Gary, I just take more realistic view of people. Nobody taught me to hide my broken arm when I was a kid, I just did. Instinct. Nobody teaches kids to make fun of other kids who are different, but they do. Even good kids from good families. Human nature. Although I think as aware adults we should make it clear that we don't condone it or permit it.

    Although few people would admit it to you there's not a lot of people who would be able to take pride or understand pride in an amputated leg, dwarfism, cerebral palsy, etc, but they shouldn't be ashamed of it either. Or made to feel ashamed about by the other people. I'm fully supportive of disability rights, education, etc. But, I often find the messages of the disability movement too reactionary, too abrasive/sanctifying, confusing. I felt that way about the deaf community's position on cochlear implants too. It pushes people away from your cause.

    I see and read about people like Terry Fox or a Canadian dwarf triathlete and I applaud them for it. Especially, the triathlete guy. I really like him and follow him. But, I also think the message can be overwhelming like expecting the disabled or those who are different should be saints, a supercripple, better or more heroic than everyone else. Like we're expecting things of them we don't expect from the average guy. Most of the time with the majority of the people, I think they're just trying their best to achieve a normalcy.

  5. I agree with your last paragraph. People with disabilities don't want to be supercrips, heroic or the subject of charity. We just want the chance to perform and participate on the same playing fields as everyone else. But in order to do so, an important step is acknowledging and embracing the disability or difference.