In her Wednesday April 23 performance, Alice Sheppard displayed fluidity as a dancer using a 20-pound carbon fiber titanium wheelchair, custom-made for her career in dance. Sheppard opened with a performance that was silent aside from the sound of wheels rolling across the Doty Recital Hall floor. Backward and forward, Sheppard moved with ease, transitioning from sitting to standing – some moments she spent using her arms to help her maneuver across the floor.
She stopped performing to speak, remembering the moment when she was dared to take on dancing – she later revealed that her journey since that decision made her more comfortable with her disability. At one point Sheppard encouraged the audience members to imagine themselves sitting in a wheelchair and place their arms in a position that will push their wheels forward. Through this, she demonstrated the connection that the spine and core have with the chair’s movement, rather than only the shoulders and arms.
It was at AXIS Dance Company in Oakland, Ca., known for its ensembles of performers both with and without disabilities, where Sheppard learned about the “architecture of the ideal dancer body,” something that the inaccessibility of famed dance studios across the country reveal.
“I am more disabled by the environment, than I am the state of my disability,” she said. She noted that because of this, finding dance education for individuals with disabilities is hard. It’s a movement, however, that connects her to the disability arts and culture world.
Sheppard said that, like herself, “Most disabled dancers tend to come into dancing later in life … we bring with us some of what we’ve learned about life with an impairment.”
She said she realizes that there may be social, political and cultural implications to her performances: “I realize that the act of being on stage as a disabled dancer is a sort of social justice message, but the work I’m doing is art. And I have no prescribed takeaway for that.”
In her final dance, Sheppard utilized a pair of metal crutches to further explore her movements: An image that stands out is of Sheppard extending her wingspan, holding the crutches outward as she leaned forward from her chair.
“I’m using [the crutches] to kind of explore the potential of the body. I’m interested in what happens when a crutch-using body combines with a wheelchair-using body and they combine into one body,” she said. Sheppard is particularly interested in symbols like crutches that can become artistic expression.
The dance was accompanied by music featuring a steady heartbeat that remind us of the energy, athleticism and mind-body connection that goes into all forms of dance. “Dancing is a way to really live in the world, to understand movement … a way to learn the body, to learn the world and to really come into contact and interact with people.”