A Wider Significance for a Philosophy of Disabled Dance? by Shawn Harmon

As noted by Charlotte in last month’s blog, Bunker, Pakes and Rowell (2007) argue that dance raises unique opportunities to question:

• the importance of the human body (in dance);
• the dynamics of agency and individuality; and
• the performer/observer relationship.

If this is true—and surely it is—it is perhaps more acutely true for disabled dance, which greatly diversifies the bodies and aesthetics on view and the experiences and stories offered for interpretation. That being so, disabled dance might have a surprisingly wide significance—indeed wider than so-called ‘mainstream’ dance—for these are questions that are directly relevant to much wider concerns around:

• the notions of normality and social acceptance of difference;
• language and dynamism in relation to the human form; and
• the characterisation, availability and mode of (legitimate) interventions into the human body.

And these, in turn, are—or should be—of great interest to medical ethics, and to the larger, though too often blinkered, medical/ethical community.

It has long been assumed that the role of the humanities in medicine is to provide critical reflection on assumptions and predominant metaphors in medicine and the healthcare professions. However, the reality is that the medical humanities have shied away from this role (MacNeill, 2011). In fact, Bishop (2008) has accused the medical humanities of acting as a ‘compensatory mechanism for the mechanical thinking that has dominated and continues to dominate medicine’, while Davis and Morris (2008) note that the humanities have too readily accepted a boundary between ‘biology’ and ‘culture’.

The result has been that medicine, with the connivance of bioethics, has assumed a dubious distinction between fact and value as if medicine (aligned with science) is about fact, and ethics and the humanities are about value. MacNeill (2011), at 87, has reported:

Anyone engaged (as I am each year) in interviewing incoming medical students will know that the ‘body-as-machine’ and a ‘story of restitution’ are dominant narratives of students even before entry into a medical course. … [T]hese are inaccurate and misleading portrayals of medical practice, yet the metaphors have been remarkably resilient.

The effect of this acquiescence has been to marginalise the humanities, and the arts, in the healthy evolution of medical and life science development and education practices.

Ultimately, as argued by MacNeill (2011), science and the humanities are incomplete without each other. Neither can adequately answer the questions we ask of them without admittance of the insights and interpretations offered by the arts and cultural practices. On this, it has been argued that, ‘the biological without the cultural, or the cultural without the biological, is doomed to be reductionist at best and inaccurate at worst’ (Davis & Morris, 2008).

In short, the arts, in addition to a more critical humanities, are important. Avant-garde art like disabled dance—and some view disabled dance as one of the last avant-garde movements (Bragg, 2011)—can only help. But to do so, it must trigger discussions about embodiment and aesthetics that go beyond dance; its questions, its interpretations, its framework of evaluation must bleed into medical and ethical debates and, importantly, medical education.

If it hopes to do this, a sound philosophy of disabled dance—an agreed framework for talking critically about a much wider range of embodiments, creative processes and aesthetics, and lived experiences (on the margins)—is critical not only for improving debates around, and undertsandings of, disabled dance and dance more broadly, but also of the ‘divergent’ body in society, and indeed the diversity and dynamism of the human body itself. Given this, our efforts within the InVisible Dance project to ensure that a broad range of disciplines contribute to that framework are surely not wasted; indeed Cooper Albright and Brandstetter (2015) acknowledge that, whilst critical scholarship about dance and disability has expanded, it still remains too narrow, with too little attention paid to how physical difference can radically transform the transmission of embodied knowledge, and to debates about how to dance.

And in our pursuit for a philosophy of disabled dance, let us always remain keenly aware of its potential usefulness in expanding our social-shaping medical narratives and our medicine-shaping (bio)ethical assessments.

J Bishop, ‘Rejecting medical humanism: Medical humanities and the metaphysics of medicine’ (2008) 29 J Med Humanit 15.
M Bragg, ‘The last remaining avant-garde movement’ The Guardian, 11 December 2011.
J Bunker, A Pakes and B Rowell, Thinking Through Dance: The Philosophy of Dance Performance and Practices (Hampshire: Dance Books, 2013).
A Cooper Albright and G Brandstetter, ‘The Politics of a Prefix’ (2015) 6 Choreographic Practices 3.
L Davis and D Morris, Biocultures Manifesto (2008) 38 New Lit Hist 411.
P MacNeill, ‘The arts and medicine: A challenging relationship’ (2011) 37 J Med Humaniti
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