Three dancers are sweating under their choreographer’s demanding eye. They turn, jump, and lean into each other, flowing across the room. The sound of bare feet mixes with the squeaking of rubber against the floor.
That’s the sound of dancer Joel Brown’s wheelchair. As he propels into a turn, the other dancers, Sonsheree Giles and Sebastian Grubb, match his movements, but on their feet. Then choreographer Marc Brew, who’s been watching from the front of the studio, glides over to the trio. He’s also in a wheelchair.
This is a rehearsal for AXIS Dance Company, a pioneer in a dance form it calls “physically integrated dance,” which uses both disabled and non-disabled dancers. Though AXIS has been around for more than 20 years, it’s still rare to see this kind of work.
“I think that we’ve redefined dance, we’ve redefined dancer, we have a different, more expanded view of what virtuosity is,” says Judith Smith, the artistic director of AXIS. She grew up riding horses, but didn’t start dancing until her early 20s, after a car accident left her in a wheelchair. She helped co-found AXIS in 1987 with a group made up of three disabled people, and three non-disabled people.
At first, the dancers choreographed for each other. And they were successful -- launching their first national tour just three years after the company was founded. But 10 years in, Smith took on the role of artistic director, and she had a new vision.
“Those of us that had been dancing with the company from the beginning were realizing that we weren’t really growing,” she says. “We felt like we were recycling movement and recycling the same piece, putting things in a different order. I got very restless, and so did some of the other dancers.”
So AXIS started commissioning well-known choreographers to work with the company. It’s a move that has paid off: over the past 15 years, AXIS has become one of the most highly-regarded dance companies in the Bay Area and beyond. Smith says in the beginning, people weren’t sure if AXIS was doing art or therapy. To her, it’s very clear. “We’re not a disabled dance company, we’re not a wheelchair dance company. We’re a contemporary dance company,” she says.
But the performances are just one part of the company’s mission. Smith says that education and outreach have been important from the start.
Early on, audience members would approach them after shows and ask where they could learn this kind of dance. “And we had nowhere to send them,” Smith recalls.
So they started by hosting a monthly community dance jam. As time went on, they added regular classes for both disabled and non-disabled people, intensive workshops, and performances in schools. Education now makes up about half of what AXIS does.
Bonnie Lewkowicz and Annika Presley co-teach a lot of classes for AXIS’ in-school programs. Presley, the education director at AXIS, says that rather than drilling specific forms, the classes try to help students discover their own inherent dance vocabulary.
“I think a lot of students, especially [students] with disabilities, are always told what to do, exactly,” she says. “What I love about working with AXIS is we give them that freedom, to find movement within their own bodies.”
Lewcowicz, a founding member of AXIS, says she gets a lot of joy from “sharing the idea that dance is possible for everyone, seeing everyone open up to dance and embrace this idea that our bodies are special no matter how they move and function, and appreciate what we can do instead of what we can’t do.”
The classes are also a good way to train and recruit new dancers for the company. Artistic director Smith says, “People with disabilities are not going to be able to get a good dance education yet in the general public, and in order for us to have dancers and to train dancers we necessarily have to do it ourselves.”
AXIS is even working on the development of a university degree program, so that dancers with and without disabilities can train at a high level together. In a way, the performances themselves are a kind of education for the audience.
“You don’t see disabled people on stage much, you don’t see disabled and non-disabled people on stage performing and collaborating as equals much,” Smith says. “And so I think the work that we do is still in a lot of ways very revolutionary.”
And this revolution is one where everyone can dance.