Dr. Selby Wynn Schwartz of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University shares her experience with teaching mobility and partnering with AXIS.
Nearly a decade ago, while I was teaching at UC Berkeley, I created a Comparative Literature class around the theme of mobility: novels that were full of moving parts, photographs that sped up and became films, travelogues, ramblings, narratives that shifted spaces. We looked at texts that were full of friction and momentum, and we began to wonder why mobility was so often linked to ability—to go places, to move onwards, to get in, to climb up the ladder, to have access. In general, when I don’t have answers for difficult questions, I ask artists, because they are constantly practicing ways of embodying complex ideas—and so I invited AXIS Dance Company to do a workshop with my students (supported by the Arts Research Center). It was a tremendous experience. AXIS calls itself a “physically integrated dance company”: this workshop was the physical integration of ideas, mobility as a way of translating movement from body to body.
This year, when I began teaching in the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University, I knew that I wanted to teach another class about mobility. In this political moment, we need to ask whose bodies are included in public spaces. Who has the right to move freely? Whose bodies matter and why? What can move us towards a more just, more inclusive way of coexisting? In other words, as Judith Butler writes, “How do we understand this way of being bound up with one another, of being implicated in each other’s lives, a mode of interdependency that is hardly chosen and never precisely easy?” These are difficult and crucial questions—questions that my students are inheriting. Fortunately, AXIS agreed to do more workshops with my classes (supported this time by ArtsCatalyst, by the Associate Director of Engagement and Public Programs at Stanford Live, and by the Institute for Diversity in the Arts).
But many of my students were wary: they weren’t (they said) dancers, did they really have to dance, was this thing part of their grade? I told them that AXIS was supremely good at integrating different states of embodiment; all they had to do was wear clothing that they could move in. On the day of the workshops, some students initially hung back along one wall, slowly taking off one shoe at a time, eyeing the dancers as they warmed up. But as soon as the workshop began, every student was involved in developing a shared physical “alphabet,” and then movement “phrases,” and then explorations of leaning, pulling, balancing, tilting, interlacing, and supporting that filled the entire space of Bing Studio. They were working out mobility and difference through engaged pedagogy, by embodying the questions themselves: so, OK, how do we support each other according to the weight each can bear? Why do spaces invite certain kinds of movement and not others? At the end of the workshop, all of the students integrated a choreographic “spelling” of their own names into a movement duet, which they performed for the whole circle.
After the workshop, even the most skeptical students were overflowing with enthusiasm. One described it as “the most eye-opening/groundbreaking” experience of the quarter, while another felt inspired by “embodying mobility in a new way”—and they understood the workshop as an essential part of “the way the class aimed to challenge the status quo.” A student named Jimmy Zhou, whose research essay explored what allyship might mean in the context of disability, wrote, “The AXIS dance workshop demonstrated one method of how people with disabilities and allies of people with disabilities can come together and work towards deconstructing societal biases about movement and disability. It’s easy to talk about ideas of changing disability representations within disability studies and academia, but what truly impresses me about AXIS Dance Company is their effort to take these ideas and execute them. It is the efforts of groups like AXIS who seek to inject representations of disability into every life that will ultimately lead to an acceptance of disability in mainstream discussion.”
Thank you, AXIS Dance Company, for moving us.