Normal is a Fantasy

Dr. Linda Williams, Founder and Creator of Invisible Disability Project, and Monica Slabaugh, Chief Curator, reflect on AXIS Dance Company's to go again performance, embracing disorder, diversity, and disability. 

The Invisible Disability Project was recently invited to AXIS Dance Company’s touring
performance, to go again, at Stanford University’s Bing Concert Hall. To go again brings light to the resilience, lived traumas, and social invisibility of veterans and their families through movement, music, and spoken words. Veteran choreographer Joe Goode based the performance on stories collected from veterans who recently returned from war and their families. 

Dwayne Scheuneman and Kevin Lopez in to go again. Photo by Rahim Ullah

Dwayne Scheuneman and Kevin Lopez in to go againPhoto by Rahim Ullah

In one scene, three dancers are arranged in triangular formation, backs to the audience. Their bodies are motionless except for their arms, which make hard, quick motions in beat with the sound of clicking gears. At times, all three sets of arms move in the same way at the same time. But at other times, each dancer interprets, translates, and reacts to the rhythmic clicking differently. Six limbs move like disorderly arms on three unpredictable clocks, or like a series of unruly and asymmetrical versions of the Cartesian man. What does it mean to be in sync? What happens when we linger in spaces of non-synchrony? What does it mean to defy the ideal body? The ideal mind?

It isn’t surprising that humans are hardwired to look for difference and diversity. We do
this without thinking so that we may guard ourselves against the dangerousness of disorder. Consider, for example, the evolutionary basis of staring. We stare at the unexpected, at that which startles us. We notice difference, and all at once it alarms, excites, and captivates us. In staring, our brains attempt to make sense of disorder, to know what is unknown*. It follows that we find comfort and safety in sameness and repetition. Efforts to maintain sameness are manifest in our thoughts, actions, and our language, and have shaped and preserved cultural notions of normalcy.

Julie Crothers and Sophie Stanley in Dix minutes plus tard. Photo by Rahim Ullah

Julie Crothers and Sophie Stanley in Dix minutes plus tard. Photo by Rahim Ullah

But normal is a fantasy.

Our diverse bodies and minds move together in space and time in different ways - because diversity is real. And thankfully, disorder persists. Invisible Disability Project and AXIS Dance Company disrupt normalcy by expanding the vocabulary of movement and athleticism, and by challenging language, mindsets, and systems.

 “These are some of the stories, some of the words that will be spoken. And speaking them matters.” To go again beautifully translates the stories of veterans through voice and movement. This creates space to share in the unseen experiences of a marginalized and largely “invisible” population.

AXIS dancers working with recreation therapy patients at the Palo Alto Veterans Hospital.

AXIS dancers working with recreation therapy patients at the Palo Alto Veterans Hospital.

Consider this: What would happen if we sought change outside of the most challenged
individuals and instead, asked this from the least challenged around them? Bodily and neurodiversity need flexible structures, allies, and partnerships. The Invisible Disability Project is a Benefits Corporation (B Corp) with a social mission to center bodily and neurodiversity in a culture of equity. We begin by re-imagining what it means to be a citizen philanthropist. What would happen if philanthropy’s mission was to increase and share in social capital, rather than amass private capital that remains out of the common good? What would happen if philanthropy was a mindset - a culture of equity and care - that lived in the everyday spaces we inhabit, and affected the people in our everyday lives?

*See Rosemarie Garland-Thompson’s Staring

Learn more about the movement at

AXIS Talks Injury

Dwayne Scheuneman and Nicholas Brentley                                                                                                            Photo by Darial Sneed

Dwayne Scheuneman and Nicholas Brentley                                                                                                            Photo by Darial Sneed


What happens when a dancer is injured? What does it means for their bodies, their emotional well being, and for the companies they work with? AXIS staff and dancers share their experience sustaining injuries, replacing injured dancers, and planning a tour with a cast that changed mid-stream.

From the desk of Co-Founder and Artistic Director Judith Smith:

Dancers are the heart and soul of every dance company. Their bodies are their instrument and sometimes those bodies are injured despite all the training, conditioning and preemptive work that they do. For a dancer, that’s devastating. For a Company, we must first help them get the advice and help they need. Then we have to shift into problem-solving mode because there is the reality of ‘the show must go on’.  This means doing the almost impossible-- finding a replacement  (or three) who fits the part, can learn it fast, is available at the required rehearsal times and can commit to an already booked tour schedule. There’s a lot of pressure on the remaining company members and the new dancers to quickly learn the work, develop a repoire with each other and frankly, get things done! I’m extremely grateful to Sebastian Grubb, Brendan Bartel and Kevin Lopez who have come in to cover for Nick Brentley and have allowed our AXIS show to go on —to Israel and to six other cities this season. And, a huge THANK YOU to our fabulous dancers Nick, Dwayne, Julie, Keon and Sophie who have been rockstars in the midst of adversity.

From AXIS dancer Nicholas Brentley, on sustaining an injury:

In dance, the body is the instrument.  As such, when its function is compromised by injury, it is also easy to feel like less.  As dancers, we place a lot of pressure on ourselves to produce with consistency.  Our schooling, training, experience and accolades lead us to believe we have reached a certain level in our craft and that our practice should reflect it.  However, no one is immune to setbacks and injury has a great way of humanizing the dancer, prioritizing how one shows up in life over how one shows up in the studio.

I look at being injured similarly to how I look at auditioning.  Both are excellent gauges for what needs attention.  We don’t always know why injury occurs or why we weren’t cast.  But, either way there is always something to work on even if it is doing less or resting more.  In this time away from dance I am making an effort to observe more of it. Attending performances enables me to remain current with the community and feel like I still have a place within it.  

From AXIS Guest dancer Brendan Barthel:

There are never any guarantees. Cross training and taking the time to warm up thoroughly and cool down properly after working greatly minimize chances for injury. Sometimes after finding enough time in the day between obligations to properly take care of oneself is challenging. My personal approach has been to train myself to become accustomed to a higher level of physical challenge than I am usually asked to perform at. In this way, I find that I have more energy and will be more mindful of my body during performance, but also have the slack to give my body whatever extra care it needs at the end of the day. 

From AXIS Guest dancer Kevin Lopez:

When dancing through an injury could threaten our well being, then one must make the tough decision to take time to heal. As a dancer stepping in with AXIS Dance Company to fill in for a healing dancer, I have been happy to put in the work to bring my own spirit to this role, while still trying to maintain the integrity that the previous dancer originally created. 

Covering for Nick has been a great experience. He was so welcoming along with the rest of the company. I felt very supported in translating the work into my body in ways that worked for me, which really showed me what AXIS is all about. 


Dwayne Scheuneman shares his experience at Summer Intensive

Dwayne Scheuneman and AXIS Dancers                                                                                                                    Photo by Peter Dervin

Dwayne Scheuneman and AXIS Dancers                                                                                                                    Photo by Peter Dervin


AXIS Dancer Dwayne Scheuneman first connected with AXIS in person through our 2012 Summer Intensive program.
He shares his experiences with the program and how it influenced his work as a leader in the field of physically integrated dance. 

After dancing for many years in an area where there were very few dancers with a disability, I came to Oakland to take part in AXIS' Summer Intensive, looking to work with a variety of disabled and non-disabled dancers. It was there that I discovered a deeper understanding of what physically integrated dance is and can be. The AXIS dancers showed us participants how we could identify and highlight our uniqueness and individual moving styles, bringing our differences together to create dances filled with harmony and strong partnerships. 

After completing the Summer Intensive, I returned home excited. For the next two years I worked to share all that I had learned with the rest of my community. Then I heard that AXIS was looking for a new dancer. After a few phone calls and a visit to Oakland for an audition, I was invited to join AXIS as a full-time dancer. Now I'm touring and teaching AXIS' techniques and philosophy with beginning and experienced dancers around the country. Every class, performance and workshop I'm fortunate enough to bring into these communities introduces me to new people with different experiences, interests and stories. These inform my growth not only as a dancer, but as a person. 

Looking back, taking the AXIS Summer Intensive was an invaluable step for me towards becoming a more creative and understanding artist. It is a step that I'm eternally grateful for having been given the opportunity to take.

- Dwayne Scheuneman

Our 2016 Summer Intensive runs August 1-10, 2016, and consists of three different modules: Improvisation & Site-Specific Work; Choregraphy & Performance; and a Physically Integrated Dance Teacher Training. For more information and to apply, visit


AXIS Dance Company Summer Intensive 2016, Sign up now

Join us for an unparalleled dance experience with AXIS Dance Company and Marc Brew.  Learn new skills in three different modules derived from the company’s working ethos and repertoire that will enhance and develop your own practice in improvisation, choreography and performance.  This year, our specialized teacher training for dance teachers and experienced artists will expand to three days instead of two.  This module is geared towards professionals wanting to enhance their skills and working methods in inclusive dance and translation for dancers with physical disabilities.

Learn more Here and Apply:

Improvisation and Site Specific Work - Monday-Wednesday, August 1-3
Choreography and Performance - Thursday-Saturday, August 4-6
Teacher Training for Dancers, Professionals and Educators - Monday-Wednesday, August 8-10

Introducing Carina Ho, AXIS Dance Company Apprentice

From the desk of Artistic Director Judith Smith:

I created our AXIS Immersion Apprenticeship program for dancers with disabilities because opportunities for them to be exposed to dance, to train with an established physically integrated dance company and to pursue a career in dance are very few and far between. It’s still virtually impossible for most young disabled dancers to attend typical dance studios and university programs the way non-disabled dancers do. Attitudes about disability along with a lack of knowledge about programmatic accessibility still prevail.

AXIS’ approach will be also be a step toward addressing the decades-long crisis the field of physically integrated dance has faced because there are not enough trained disabled dancers to meet the demand. Apprentices are on the same schedule as our dancers and will attend all company classes, rehearsals, master classes and workshops and even tour. Our apprenticeship is scheduled to coincide with our Summer Intensive, a week-long course attended by dancers from all over the world that culminates in a showing of choreographed work created during the week. It’s definitely an immersion and we’re thrilled to have support from Craig H. Neilsen Foundation, CA Arts Council, National Endowment for the Arts and Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation.

Carina Ho speaks on her new apprenticeship:

I was so excited when Judy Smith called me out of the blue to offer me an apprenticeship with AXIS Dance Company. In 2014 at the age of 26 I sustained a spinal cord injury that landed me in a wheelchair. The prognosis of paralysis from the chest down was difficult enough, but as a former dancer the thought of never dancing again was even more devastating. It has been a year and a half since my injury and I am still mastering how to move my new body. I'm hoping this apprenticeship will push me to develop new technique and strength, however I am mostly looking forward to feeling the sense of freedom that dance used to give me as an able-bodied person. 

Today marks my third day with the company and I have already learned so much from my fellow dancers. This week alone we have visited three schools around the Bay and have been on stage in front of hundreds of students. It has been a powerful experience to share our art and stories with young people, and I believe our message will positively shape their views towards dance and disability. I am also a musician and my recent dance journey has inspired a lot of creativity in my personal work. My great hope is that I will take the stage both as a dancer and a musical artist in the near future. 

Interview with Photographer Peter Dervin Volunteer House photographer at Edmonds Center for the Arts

While AXIS was in Edmonds Washington, we had the opportunity to be photographed by Peter Dervin. We are so thankful that he shared his talent with us and gave us these photos!

As I'm the volunteer house photographer for the Edmonds Center for the Arts, I have the opportunity to photograph and enjoy a variety of music and dance performance. As this was a dress rehearsal for AXIS, adjustments to the stage lighting and sound were being done. The luxury of photographing in this moment was my ability to work the auditorium. It also made for a quiet space in which the dancers could be heard. Their movements alone created an ambient sound that added to the performance.

The other unique aspect for me is witnessing such a performance through the camera. It's not just photographing the dancers but the space around them, as they say, framing the image. The dance itself was impactful, as it touched on the difficulties and challenges of those affected by conflict.

See a sample of his amazing photos here: