The Steady Dancing Body. by Mathilde Pavis

The de minimis ‘normal’ dancing body

The following comments are made by a brain trained in Law and an eye used to read cases; both do strive to understand the sophistication of the art of dance and its theories. Witnessing conversations between our dance experts, here are my conclusions on the idea of ‘normalcy’ and the ‘normal’ dancing body.

This blog post argues that the dancing body, although inherently moving, must be ‘steady’ to enable creative collaboration to occur between the performer and the choreographer. For the same reason, this feature is also key in efficiently disseminating the work within the creative industry. Therefore, it is submitted that ‘body steadiness’ might be one of the minimal standards of ‘normalcy’ that should be expected from dance artists instead of other canons of beauty.

Here, ‘steady’ does not refer to any aesthetic values. ‘Steady’ does not refer to static, solid or strong but to being in control. The ‘steady body’ refers to the performer’s ability to control his/her body which, in turn, enables him/her to use it as a creative platform or forum when engaging with choreographers or other dance artists.
Because the notion of ‘corporeal steadiness’ is free from any aesthetic perspective it allows us to move on from the debate on aesthetic and narratives in disability dance to investigate the practicalities of working with disabled dance artists, another thread of the thoughts of the InVisible Difference Project. One of the questions which keeps coming back in the various conversations between the project members is why professional choreographers or companies chose to work with one disabled dancer over another? Is it a question of dancing abilities or visible disability? Is it a question of degree of disability? Is it a question of disability ‘prettiness’? Is it because the disability is less visible or less invasive of the choreographer’s work being closer to a certain idea of the ‘normal dancing body’? What is the ‘normal’ dancing body? On what basis the professional dance community choses (or should chose) their differently abled bodies? Are there any other reasons beyond the ineffable aesthetic appeal (1) of otherness?
I would suggest that one of the reasons why choreographers or companies might be more inclined to work with one differently abled dancer artist over another, aesthetics and corporeal appearance set a side, is the ability of such artist to offer a ‘steady body’ to work with. I also believe that this criterion transcends the question of the dancer’s disability as steadiness is also required of non-disabled dancing bodies.

A steady body is a body whose ability to perform does not significantly vary between the first and the last rehearsal, a body which allows the performance finalised in studio to be the performance delivered to the audience once on stage (2). This ability is not only physical but can also be mental or psychological. The dancing body in a wheelchair or missing a limb is a steady body, despite the clear shift in aesthetic boundaries. Although the choreographer will have to conceive his/her work around the dancer’s differently abled body, the dancer will be able to embody the work in the same manner in the last rehearsal than in the first public performance (5). The body is different but steady. The situation is different for the dancer subject to chronic fatigue syndrome (6), Tourette syndrome (7), anterograde amnesia (8) or dystonia (9), for example. Here, the body is both different and unsteady. The same goes for the ‘non-disabled’ dancer unable to remember the sequences of the work in rehearsals and later during public performances. Such dancers will inevitably perform different versions of the choreographer’s work at different times or even different works every time they are on stage. In this context, the body itself might be able but is unsteady and thus becomes difficult to work with at a professional level. Since the ‘normal dancing body’ must be steady, the unsteady dancing body becomes ‘abnormal’ even if fully- abled.

The ‘unsteady’ body is a corporeal trait which challenges the creative process, the conditions of collaboration between choreographers and performers, as well as the artists’ relationship with their work. Artists have a very intimate and particular relationship with their work. This bond is often translated into a desire of controlling the work (its shape, content, message, context of dissemination etc.). For that reason, this relationship between the artist and his/her work is often compared to parenthood and paternity in the literature (10) and was converted to property (11) in the legal narrative (12). Unlike any other forms of arts, choreographers have to delegate or transfer a share of this control to their dancers since their work would otherwise not be accessible by the audience. It seems that in this delegation process, part of this explicit or implicit agreement between the choreographer and his/her performers is the possibility for the choreographer to require them to embody his/her vision, to control the body accordingly (13). For this to happen, rehearsals are, of course, necessary. However, the paramount condition remains the steady body. There is no control of the performed work by the choreographer possible when working with an ‘unsteady’ body. Because the performer is him/herself unable to control his/her own body, the delegation of control from the choreographer to the performer cannot happen. The traditional ways of collaboration, most commonly practiced and conveyed in the industry, cannot occur. This situation may explain the reason why professional choreographers or companies are more likely to collaborate with ‘steady-abled bodies’ rather than ‘unsteady’ ones.
This highlights the fact that the body is not only a platform of the choreographic work itself but is also the forum of creative collaborations. The ‘unsteady’ body leads to a breakdown of such forum currently, to a breakdown of the most widely spread practice in the dance community, including disability dance (14).

Are disabled bodies more likely to be ‘unsteady’ than abled bodies? Possibly. Nevertheless, casting decisions based on the ‘steadiness’ of body, which directly relates to the ability to perform and meet the most common expectations of the field would be a valid or legitimate way of selecting performing artists. Casting necessitates a selection which inherently discriminates, on one count or the other. If the discrimination is based on the ability to perform the expectations of the choreographer (i.e. presenting a ‘steady’ body) rather than the mere presence or absence of disability, it could be argued that such discrimination is acceptable even legal. Using a criterion of ‘corporeal steadiness’ rather than complicated measurements or classification of disability or body aesthetics might help mitigating bias, aesthetic subjectivity or bigotry (note all the more so since it would be applicable to both abled and disabled body). In this approach, the dancer’s disability becomes an element of his/her performative skills and profile instead of being automatically perceived it as a limiting condition. This would shift the focus from the shape of the body to its ability when judging of its capacity to perform (15).

From a layperson’s perspective, the performance of the ‘unsteady’ body appears to be a situation close to improvisation. Like the artist improvising, the ‘unsteady’ body changes the work sequences of the work instead of fully or simply performing the work (i.e. embodying the choreographer’s visions and expectations). The unsteady body improvises whilst performing ‘on’ the choreographer’s work. Some choreographers are interested in this indeterminate and open creative approach so much so that the unsteady body can be the dancing body looked for. However, it seems that this creative process is not the most commonly practiced. The mainstream, and the creative industry underlining it, seem to follow the first pattern (16) where the steady body becomes a central element for of collaboration between the performer and the choreographer.

(1) Rosemary Garland Thompson’s in her work on the stare did make this “appeal to otherness” more effable; Rosemary Garland Thompson, Staring : How we look (Oxford University Press 2009)
(2) The point is not to claim that there is no variation between two performances by the same dancer of the same work. Performances can be seen as ever evolving versions of one work, however, it is claimed that such variations between performances are not substantial in the hypothesis of a steady dancing body.
(3) Provided the dancer possesses the other relevant complementary skills (technique, stamina etc.)
(4) Chronic fatigue syndrome is “a medical condition of unknown cause, with fever, aching, and prolonged tiredness and depression, typically occurring after a viral infection.” See, Online Oxford Dictionaries <> accessed 03/04/2014
(5) Tourette syndrome is “a neurological disorder characterized by involuntary tics and vocalizations and often the compulsive utterance of obscenities.” See, Online Oxford Dictionaries accessed 03/04/2014
(6) Anterograde amnesia is incapacity of converting short-term memory into long-term memory. Amnesia can be generally defined as “A partial or total loss of memory” See, Online Oxford Dictionaries <> accessed 03/04/2014
(7) Dystonia is “a state of abnormal muscle tone resulting in muscular spasm and abnormal posture, typically due to neurological disease or a side effect of drug therapy”. See, Online Oxford Dictionaries < > accessed 03/04/2014
(8) See for example, Roberta Rosenthal Kwall, “Inspiration and innovation: the intrinsic dimension of the artistic soul” Notre Dame Law Review (2006)
(9) Ownership via legal authorship
(10) Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988
(11) The choreographer can be more or less heavy-handed in the his/her directions of the performers during rehearsals, practice or public performance. For instance, Caroline Bowditch works in a very different way with her dancers than a conservative ballet choreographer would or even Martha Graham.
(12) Looking at the major faces of disability dance in the UK, Caroline Bowditch, Claire Cunningham, Mark Brew or David Toole, all three of these artists have differently abled but steady bodies.
(13) The bias caused by the medical model notably, in the questions of measurement of disability to attest of the individual’s ability to take part in one activity or another.
(14) This debate is inevitably tied with the conception of the performer’s body (as the choreographer’s canvas or an independent element to the performance) and of performance (the pure repetition of the choreographer’s wishes or a different dimension of the work)

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