“It’s very difficult to show up at dance class and expect that it’s going to work for you, that the person teaching is not going to freak out, and will be able to teach in a way that someone like me can translate the material,” says artistic direct Judith Smith, who has been wheelchair-bound since a car accident at age 17. And yet, movement has immense rewards for those who have experienced debilitating losses. Scheuneman says that after severely injuring his neck in 1995, “dance helped me understand my new body and improved my ability to navigate in a wheelchair.”
AXIS’ process isn’t much different from that of other modern repertory groups: They use the same improvisational activities, the same weight-sharing exercises, as you’d find at any other company. “There’s just a learning curve with figuring out how somebody in a wheelchair moves, or what our balance issues are, or how crutches work,” says Smith.
That’s part of where AXIS’ rich movement vocabulary comes from. “When you have a cast of people who move differently and use adaptive equipment, you have this incredibly varied spectrum of movement to steal from,” says Sophie Stanley, a nondisabled dancer. “It could be the way Dwayne’s wheelchair swoops in a big, circular motion. I might want to emulate that beautiful curve.”
But rather than just celebrating the integration of disabled dancers with nondisabled dancers, AXIS values each individual. “Every company is different,” Scheuneman says. “I bring my wheelchair to the group, that’s my offering. But everyone has a background. Mine is just more obvious.” Stanley adds: “It’s not about there being this one type of person and this other type of person. It’s about five or six very different people coming together to create something.”