Positive Portrayals of Disability in Dance
By Guest Blogger Jerron Herman, Professional Dancer and Writer
I grew up with a desire to be an artist; I also grew up having cerebral palsy, often complicating that dream because no one was like me succeeding as one. There was writer and painter Christy Brown, but he was dead! I remember a well-meaning high school friend questioning my desire to be on Broadway, even in light of my freshly printed acceptance letter from New York University. They said they just didn’t see me actually being onstage. It’s a common story that we can point to as the reason people with disabilities ought to be more out there, but that narrow perception isn’t the problem because people with disabilities are gaining tangible ground in being visible. Our next step as a culture is to open up the spectrum of “disability” so no one undermines it. The best positive portrayal of a person with a disability, then, is the truest portrayal. This has become evident over the last four years with my job as a principal dancer for one of the leading physically integrated dance companies in the world, Heidi Latsky Dance (HLD).
In my time with HLD I’ve been profiled, interviewed, reviewed, and applauded for my work in the company. I was at first very shocked by all the attention, but then realized our society needs to be introduced to dynamic images of people with disabilities. Within the growing industry of dance and disability there is a tendency to only show the rock ‘em/sock ‘em rigor of an intense wheelchair dance or a drastic feat of athleticism from an amputee while leaving out the quiet parts, or it’s a totally sentimental piece without edge. To make dance and disability legitimate within the dance world we must showcase the breadth of it and not rest on either side. At HLD we attempt to show ferocity and rigor, but also vulnerability. When a person walks away from our work we want them to expand their understanding of beauty; we ultimately want them to see humanity.
By measure of being immersed in disability culture I know there are political, a-political, selfish, dedicated, morose, joyful, prickly, and passionate people with disabilities. So, I am interested in showing those who aren’t immersed in disability culture that there is a spectrum and we can hold one or all of these characteristics. It’s paramount we get the word out on who we are, not just that we have disabilities. Who I am as a dancer is closely tied to my disability, but my longevity in the field will be because of who I am as a person. It will take discerning leaders and creative thinkers to bring in different folks that will push the industry forward. I was invited to join a company through a different channel, which is rare in the dance field because everyone gets rejected all the time and only through auditions. I do feel somewhat guilty, but incredibly fortunate, I have none of a dancer’s baggage with trying to make it. What’s on my body already works for the work I am doing.
When I was first making this duet with a dancer without a disability in HLD I had different reactions at certain times in the dance. I would wince or raise my shoulders depending on the movement; sometimes I would let my eyebrows show the exertion of a pirouette or leap. Emoting is a total no-no in modern dance, but in showing the effort of the work I showed what was real for me. There could have been an impulse from the artistic direction to hide the effort and present the dance as easy, but in showing the real effort an audience got a glimpse at the authenticity of disability culture, making the culture legitimate.
The expression “art imitates life” is certainly true for us because HLD reflects the kind of inclusion in our work that is also reflected in our company model: finding and empowering people with disabilities to be leaders. If we think about authentic portrayals we’ll find the positive, empowering, and replicable images we are hoping for. I suppose a big reason behind my wanting to be an artist was to create space for my story. Where once I used writing as a way to prestige, now my body is the tool. Though, I won’t throw any empowering/positive tool out altogether just yet. I’m a portrayal, now, and I’m up for the job of being a full one.
About the Guest Blogger
Jerron Herman is a professional dancer and writer thriving with Hemiplegia Cerebral Palsy. Since joining Heidi Latsky Dance in 2012 he is also the company’s Artistic Associate. Jerron has worked with other physically integrated dance companies like Marked Dance Project and is preparing for the premiere of a piece in Chicago with disabled artist Baraka de Soleil. Jerron is a Bay Area, California native and not loves only to make art, but consume it in every form.