Going onstage (www.esplanade.com).


How To Have A Dancer's Body

Dismantling barriers of disability, myth of bodily perfection


Published: 12 Apr 2023

Time taken : ~10mins

When David Toole OBE passed on in 2020, my distant sadness was selfishly filled with a sense of loss—that I would never get the chance to see him perform live. I had only ever seen his performance in the dance film, The Cost Of Living (2004), by DV8 Physical Theatre on DVD. I am glad I had at least seen that performance—he and fellow performer Eddie Kay delivered startling vulnerability, fierce desire, and an unusual balance between irony and naivete in this work by Lloyd Newson. Perhaps the world’s most renowned disabled dancer, Toole’s power and presence seemed to burst out of the screen. I was certainly confronted with the question: what does it take to live, to really, really, live? If our bodies carry us through our lives, how are our bodies limited and extended by social norms and structures, and how do people eke out the lives that they want?

Toole, a remarkable performer and a double amputee, was particularly positioned to provoke this question. By his own account, his quality of life was greatly improved when he started to pursue a life in dance, instead of toiling as a worker in the postal service. He was a prominent advocate for disabled artists, whose exceptional performance skills and exceptional body brought attention to the works he was in, as well as attention to the importance of greater inclusion of artists with disabilities. 

Changing our gaze of our own bodies

As an able-bodied person, and a dancer, I have spent decades facing, fighting against and embracing limitations, illnesses, injuries, childbirth and motherhood. Enlarging the field of dance to include all bodies—young, very young, old, very old, injured, impaired, disabled, high support needs, diseased, well, athletic, virtuosic, average, fleshy, bony, ageing, trans, queer, et cetera – requires so many things: more kinds of choreographies and dances; greater representation of diverse bodies including dancers with disabilities; artistic teams who know how to make space for a wide range of needs, budgets and line items that fund access workers, wheelchair-access spaces, calm spaces, understanding front-of-house personnel and engaged audiences… Fundamentally though, in order for dance for everybody to be fully realised, what is required is that people across all sections of society experience and see their own bodies as valid and expressive—as dancing bodies – whether they are working towards a classical ideal, deconstructing those ideals, or listening deeply to internal movement. 


Pushing physical limits: Who gets to be a virtuosic body? Do bodies need to be virtuosic to dance?

As a young adult, Toole was encouraged by a former teacher to attend a dance workshop with Candoco Dance Company, and the rest is history. He quit his job in the postal service, and while also working part-time at Candoco, studied at Laban Dance Centre in London (now Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance). He graduated in 1993, and working with a slew of arts companies including Candoco Dance Company, went on to bring the world the gift of his performances. As a highly virtuosic performer, he eventually was warned by medical professionals that his arms and shoulders were wearing out—like most classical dancers, and indeed dancers of various forms, his performances came at the price of exhausting and perhaps damaging his own body. The cost of dance often plays out in the dancer’s body—and like all norms, this too can change.

When a disabled dancer takes the stage, he or she stakes claim to a radical space, an unruly location where disparate assumptions about representation, subjectivity, and visual pleasure collide with one another.

Ann Cooper Albright

Developed out of inclusive workshops at London’s Aspire Centre for Spinal Injury, Candoco has since worked with an impressive list of choreographers, and been featured on major stages and channels. Founded in 1991 by Celeste Dandeker-Arnold OBE and Adam Benjamin, the company was a pioneer in disability arts. It continues its work of “expanding perceptions of what dance can be”, and will conduct a workshop as part of the EveryBody showcase at Esplanade in April 2023.

In Candoco’s work, their vision is centred around how an art form can be transformed. The performers they work with have a range of abilities and disabilities which audience members may or may not be able to perceive; their performance works do not necessarily feature disabilities in an explicit way. Indeed, from an understanding that disabled bodies are already an integral part of the whole, they push choreographic limits and create new aesthetics. 

Such boundary pushing also takes place in the work of ILL-ABILITIES™, which performs as part of EveryBody from 14-16  April 2023. An international breakdance crew comprising some of the world’s best differently-abled dancers, ILL-Abilities first started with the goal of competing and performing internationally. All the dancers have a physical disability—and against expectations, in the face of discrimination, they perform challenging and jaw-dropping break dance moves with great panache and energy. In their performances, they share their stories, inspiring and motivating audiences with their positivity and unique dance moves. In other words, they demonstrate very clearly that disabilities do not limit virtuosity. They also demonstrate how, when someone sees their physical disability not as a reason to stop dancing, they change perceptions of what dance can be.

The crew coming to Singapore are: the founder/initiator Luca “Lazylegz” Patuelli (Canada), Jacob “Kujo” Lyons (USA), Sergio “Checho” Carvajal (Chile), Redouan “Redo” Ait Chitt (The Netherlands), Jung Soo "Krops" Lee (South Korea), Samuel Henrique "Samuka" da Silveira Lima (Brazil), Lucas "Perninha" Machado (Brazil) and "Junior" Bosila Banya (France). The crew’s name uses the standard in hip-hop culture of using a negative term to refer to something positive: bad, nasty, sick, are all compliments. In this case, ‘ill’ refers to incredible talent. Their disabilities, which may limit their everyday mobility, become the focal point in their performances to reveal how exceptional they are.

Indeed, dance, as an artistic field that tends to be filled with ableist ideals of what a body should look like, can both contribute to the imaginary limits of what a human body can and should do, as well as dismantle those limits. 

Embodying contradicting ideals: embracing both uniformity and individuality

Instead of reframing the notion of perfection, what if dance were to embody it along with ideas of inclusivity? As an extreme example, we can turn to the movement choirs of the 1920s. Originated by choreographer and dance theorist Rudolf Von Laban, these movement choirs are like the precursor to the flash mob, or the synchronised precision walking by students from Nippon Sport Science University—which, incidentally, has produced an outstanding number of Olympians. In Singapore, the various groups represented during the National Day Parade performing mass dances can be seen as a kind of choir, though the impetus for each of these types of performances are all different. A flash mob is a fun communal intervention on city life, precision walking is a celebration of collectivism and simple physicality, and National Day mass dances are about patriotic ideals.

A movement choir is created out of simple choreographed movements that can be performed by almost anyone—the choir’s purpose is for people to connect to oneself and with others, to create a transformational experience for its performers, who are also the primary audience, as choristers. It seemed that Laban was motivated by the idea that everybody should get to enjoy dance—that dance was not reserved for those who seemed particularly skilled at particular types of movement. Choristers seemed to enjoy an improved sense of wellbeing, as they could move in harmony with others and be part of a larger body. Many kinds of bodies have since performed in movement choirs, in what is also sometimes called community dance. 

Early on, Laban’s movement choirs were quickly co-opted by Nazi Germany to highlight the power of specific bodies moving together in the same way. Although movement choirs were created by Laban based on the ideal that all bodies can take pleasure from dancing, he began to direct major festivals of dance, funded by Joseph Goebbels, from 1934 to 1936. His choreography Vom Tauwind und der Neuen Freude (Of the Spring Wind and the New Joy), intended for the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, was banned for not furthering the Nazi agenda—he escaped and later found refuge in London.

In England, he worked at Dartington Hall where two of his former students Kurt Jooss and Sigurd Leeder had started a dance school; later on he started Laban Art of Movement Guild with Lisa Ullmann and Sylvia Bodmer—the school now known as Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, where David Toole later studied. Through these schools, he further developed theories about dance and movement, to stretch the ways in which different people could understand and encounter dance. Children across the UK today are taught dance using some of the frameworks he developed; instead of teaching specific movements and choreographies, teachers give creative prompts about space, time, energy, weight, flow, and so on. The Laban movement frameworks are taught internationally as well—they provide simple and easy-to-understand guidelines for most people to begin conceiving of their own movement in more dynamically complex ways. 

Ironically, besides theorising dance and including more types of bodies in dance, Laban worked on studies that were about eliminating unwanted, wasteful movement—to push the human body to higher productivity levels. In other words, treating the body as a machine we can ultimately control: free of messiness. Yet our bodies, whether disabled or abled, are gloriously messy. They sweat, bleed, burp, fart… forming classical ballet lines, doing backflips, locomoting in wheelchairs, living with intellectual disability. They age.

A popular dance meme, spread to resist dominant commentary that dancer’s bodies need to look a certain shape and size.

Invisible disabilities: music can be felt, and not heard

Redeafination is a hip-hop performance crew of Singapore dancers with hearing disabilities. Deafness is often an invisible disability; when they perform, it might not be obvious that this crew might rehearse differently from others. Central to their way of performing, is that a deaf dancer feels the music and responds, just as a dancer without hearing disabilities hears the music and moves in tandem with it. Founded in 2008, they promote deaf awareness as well as nurture and develop performing arts talents within the deaf community—they provide training and teach hip-hop workshops in a deaf-friendly environment. 

Ammar “Ameezy”, their current resident choreographer and a well-known advocate in the local arts scene, speaks about how they dance to the vibrations of the music, memorising musical layers and beats. For him, dancing is about freedom and discovery. His works come from a place of empowerment. Perhaps hip-hop, as a popularised dance form created by disenfranchised peoples who were claiming their space by inventing new moves to new music, is particularly attractive as an artform today for those seeking to be seen and heard on their own terms.

Co-existence as a core value in diversity and inclusion

For Diverse Abilities Dance Collective (DADC), a division of Maya Dance Theatre (MDT) which started in June 2018, the key idea is co-existence. Comprising differently-abled dancers and art-makers, DADC was seeded as an idea, when MDT’s students asked about dancing with their teachers. These were students that artistic director Kavitha Krishnan had taught for two decades at Down Syndrome Association, alongside then-principal dancer Shahrin Johry. It quickly became clear that a natural progression would be for the dance students to become colleagues, and that DADC could be a platform for artists and persons with disabilities to further develop their potential. 

It is a space where we want diversely-abled dancers to converge together.

Kavitha Krishnan

Ever since they were founded by a team of professional artists as well as dancers living with Down Syndrome, the collective has presented works and programmes throughout the pandemic, both online and in-person. Its team of performers and educators has doubled, and they have worked with a growing pool of choreographers and art-makers. DADC primarily works from the classical movement of bharatanatyam alongside folk dances and creative movement, though in the spirit of inclusion and diversity, the dancers and choreographers come from all movement backgrounds. Their dancers are also involved in teaching, administrative work, and other aspects of artistic work—inclusion is not merely about representation on stage, but a daily practice, of listening to needs, fulfilling potentials, and expanding capacities. 

These are all ways in which artists and arts workers are changing how they work, how people with disabilities are finding their ways in community, and in the process changing how society functions and how audiences see dance. Certainly, there is still a long way to go before our societies are welcoming to all our messy bodily needs. 

Time and again one sees the use, or misuse of this word "integration" to describe a group or activity that has opened itself up to include people with disabilities. To integrate a group of people in this way of course implies a norm into which they need to be fitted. If however, you're using that word, integrate, from the Latin integratus, it forces you to acknowledge that they are already an integral part of the whole, even if you haven't found them a place yet.

Adam Benjamin1

No Excuses, No Limits by ILL-Abilities will be taking place 14-16 April 2023 at Singtel Waterfront Theatre.

A Space for EveryBody, led by Candoco Dance Company and featuring local dancers from Singapore, will be taking place 14-15 April 2023 at Esplanade Concourse. Candoco Dance Company will also be conducting a Dancer Development Workshop on 15 April 2023.

All programmes are part of da:ns focus, Esplanade's new year-round season of five dance-themed weekends. 


1 Adam Benjamin, "In search of integrity," Dance Theatre Journal, 1993, 45.

Contributed by:

Bernice Lee

Bernice is an artist and dance practitioner. Her current research zooms in on Mother as a malleable archetype. Bernice cares about expanding our imagination of and for the future, and constantly seeks languages for transformation. She is co-director of Rolypoly Family with Faye Lim, and has a joint practice with theatre practitioner Chong Gua Khee, manifest in Tactility Studies. Bernice holds a BFA (Hons) in Dance from The Ohio State University and an MA in Fine Arts from Lasalle College of the Arts. She has written about dance for FiveLines and ArtsEquator since 2017. She wrote the script for All our Dancing Bodies, a video for Esplanade Offstage 2021.

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da:ns focus

After 17 years of da:ns festival, Esplanade’s beloved platform transforms into da:ns focus – an exciting year-round season of five themed weekends.

Apr 2023 - Mar 2024
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