Breadth of Bodies: Discussing Disability in Dance seeks to investigate stereotypes often used to describe professional dancers with disabilities. Chapter with Redo Aitt Chitt.
Breadth of Bodies: Discussing Disability in Dance seeks to investigate stereotypes often used to describe professional dancers with disabilities. Spearheaded by Emmaly Wiederholt and Silva Laukkanen with illustrations by visual artist Liz Brent-Maldonado, the team interviewed 35 professional dance artists with disabilities around the country and world, asking about training, access, and press, as well as looking at the state of the field.
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Details: Authored by Emmaly Wiederholt and Silva Laukkanen, illustrations by Liz Brent-Maldonado, design by Christelle Dreyer, edited by Donne Lewis and April Adams, audiobook narrated by Sami Kekäläinen.
Redouan “Redo” Ait Chitt is a professional b-boy and motivational speaker based in the Netherlands. He has performed in breakdance competitions and events around the world. In 2010, he joined ILL-Abilities, an international breakdance crew comprised of dancers with disabilities. He premiered his solo show REDO in 2018 and, in 2019, made history by being awarded The Swan, the most prestigious dance award in the Netherlands. He was the first hip-hop dancer, autodidact, and person with a disability to win the award. Redo continues to perform in theater and TV productions, as well as give workshops and lectures.
How did you get into dance and what have been some highlights in your dance career?
I started dancing at age 14 in high school. My friend’s brother was breaking during lunch. My friend and I walked into the hallway and heard music, and there was his brother and some of his friends dancing. They were doing movements I’d never seen before. I had never been attracted to dance or seen it live, but this drew my attention. I loved the freedom of movement and knew I needed to try.
We asked the guys to teach us some moves, and they told us there were classes nearby at a community center. I’m from a very small city, and there were two teachers at the center from Rotterdam, a bigger city. The fact that there were breaking classes in a small city was rare.
I tried learning the basics, but it wasn’t working for me. I couldn’t complete the steps as they should be done because I can’t bend my legs the same way as other people and there’s a length difference in my arms. After a while, the teacher told me to focus on what I could do instead of wasting time on what I couldn’t do. He gave me license to focus on the creative side of the dance, which I found later is a huge advantage. In breaking, you get a lot of respect when you innovate; you want to find your own rhythm, style, and form. I had to find my own movements from the beginning.
The class got cancelled less than a year later because there was no funding. Those of us left only knew some basic movements. Most quit but a few of us continued. We went to parking garages and shopping centers to practice. My friend’s dad built a shed behind his house for us, and we practiced there every day. I started doing competitions in the battle circuit. I just wanted to prove myself. Soon, I got recognition at some battles. I wasn’t winning, but I was moving up the ladder here in the Netherlands. I would get to quarter finals, and then semifinals. I started to become known around Europe. I was training, posting videos, and reaching out to promoters. From 2004 to 2008, I was just building up my name.
Fast forward to 2010, a mutual friend of mine and Kujo’s, who is a member of ILL-Abilities, introduced us. I learned about this super crew of differently abled dancers. I had seen videos of some of them before online. In breaking, it doesn’t matter if you have a disability. Even men and women battle against each other. No one is put into categories. I thought ILL-Abilities was a cool crew, but I’d never put my disability on the fore, so I wanted to stay away from ILL-Abilities. I didn’t want to be connected with anything disability related.
ILL-Abilities had a show in Sweden, and I went just to watch. Last minute, one of the dancers couldn’t make it, so they asked me to take his place. I didn’t even know them, but I said sure, so we had to make new choreography 12 hours before the show. It was the first time I performed in the crew, and I had never experienced that kind of impact on the audience. They gave us a standing ovation and people were crying. It was dance with meaning.
After the shows, the guys asked me to be part of ILL-Abilities. My biggest dream in dance was to travel internationally and meet as many people as possible, and I’ve been able to do that through ILL-Abilities. I’ve danced in more than 25 countries. There are so many highlights I can’t remember them all – commercial gigs, videos, competitions, festivals, local workshops, and teaching children with special needs.
A big accomplishment was in 2019 when I won The Swan, the most prestigious dance award in the Netherlands. It normally goes to classically trained dancers. I was the first hip hop dancer to win the award, and the first dancer with a disability. I did a 30-minute solo piece that premiered and toured in 2018, which won me the prize in 2019.
How would you describe your current dance practice?
It’s constant. In breaking, we don’t have coaches or companies. Everything falls on self-discipline. The pandemic was a reason to just lock myself in the studio and train. When I’m not on tour or performing, I practice five days a week for five to six hours a day. When I am on tour or have performances, it’s a little less so I have energy to give my all during the performance. During my practice, I try to create new moves as well as focus on conditioning. Sometimes I just freestyle.
ILL-Abilities comes together to perform three or four times a year, and smaller gigs with only two or three members happen more often. It’s quite a hustle to bring such an international team together.
When you tell people you are a dancer, what are the most common reactions you receive?
“Oh really, how?” Sometimes people will ask, “What kind of dance do you do?” When I say breakdance, they respond, “I can see you broke a lot.” That’s a common joke. People don’t expect me to be a dancer. And they don’t think I’m a professional. They think it’s a hobby.
What are some ways people discuss dance with regards to disability that you feel carry problematic implications or assumptions?
When I dance, I just want to give my best, but sometimes when I dance my absolute worst and don’t feel proud, people say how inspiring I am. I wonder if they really mean it. It’s a compliment to inspire people, but when I’m not proud of myself, it’s hard to take that compliment. I don’t really mind being called inspiring, but I hope the dance itself was inspiring as much as the dancer onstage. I want to inspire people with good dance.
Sometimes when ILL-Abilities is warming up, but we’re not going full out, people will say, “You guys are amazing,” and we’re like, “We didn’t do anything yet.” It’s as if we don’t have to show what we can do, we just have to be there. ILL-Abilities goes to the next level with our bodies to do things that are physically impossible without years of practice.
When we work with choreographers, sometimes they are afraid to challenge us. The best choreographers we’ve worked with are the ones who push us. It makes me a better dancer. I’d rather have someone tell me my dancing isn’t good enough than give me false props.
I’ve seen press go wrong so many times. After winning the most prestigious dance award in the Netherlands, I got a lot of press. One local newspaper in my hometown didn’t call me but wrote an article with the headline, “Disabled Guy Wins Dance Prize.” In Dutch it sounds worse than in English. First, I have a name. Second, why did they need to call me disabled? At least call the person you’re writing about. I think the press has a big role in how the public sees disability.
I’ve always been called “disabled dancer,” but I find that information has no use, like “blind musician” or “gay painter.” It can be part of the story but shouldn’t be the headline. I’ve done a bunch of interviews that were done right. When my parents read about me and they’re happy, then I’m happy too because they are super critical. When that paper came out with the bad headline, my parents cancelled their subscription.
Do you believe there are adequate training opportunities for dancers with disabilities? If not, what areas would you specifically like to see improved?
In breakdance, a lot of the training has to do with individuality and creativity. If I walked into a ballet or modern dance studio 15 years ago, they probably would have told me they can’t offer me dance classes. Classical dance styles are stuck teaching a certain way. I hope that dance teachers and schools will be more open to accepting people who are different. If someone really wants to learn, they should be able to. There should also be more training opportunities for teachers to learn how to work with people with disabilities.
Right now with this inclusive shift, companies are looking for dancers with disabilities, but there aren’t that many because we had to fight for it day in, day out to earn our place. If the dance world starts offering training with the schools, it might create a bigger field for the future.
Would you like to see disability in dance assimilated into the mainstream?
For me, dance is dance. I don’t care where you come from, what color your skin is, what disability you have; it’s about the skill you show on the floor. At the end of the day, that’s all that matters. I don’t like to label myself. I don’t like to put people in boxes. I battle against some of the best dancers in the world, and they don’t have a disability. I don’t want to just battle dancers who have disabilities. I want my dance to speak for itself.
I’ve been bumping heads with professional disabled artists who have a different view. I was hosting a conference here in the Netherlands called DanceAble. A dancer from the UK and I had opposite views. I had to interview her and it ended up being a discussion onstage. She didn’t have a hand, but she said that when she danced, she wanted people to see her missing hand. I told her the best compliment is when people see me dance but don’t see any disabilities or limitations. When I walk around in daily life, I get stared at, but when I’m onstage dancing, all my disabilities fade away.
What is your preferred term for the field?
For ILL-Abilities, I find “differently abled” to be the best term. In Dutch, we don’t have a term like that. I can see why people would like to give the field a name, but I would like to not give it a name. I want dancers to be equal. In inclusive dance companies, there’s often a big difference between the disabled dancers and the non-disabled dancers. Dancers with disabilities who have been dancing for maybe one year get put onstage next to dancers without disabilities who have been training for years, and they expect to all be called professionals.
In your perspective, is the field improving with time?
In Holland, there is more openness to people with disabilities dancing or having jobs. In Europe and particularly the UK, there are festivals being organized for people with disabilities.
ILL-Abilities gets videos from people all over the world. We see people dancing in the dirt of Africa or the slums of India. Unfortunately, they will have a hard time pursuing dance. In some countries, making a living in the arts is already a challenge, let alone having a disability. It’s unfair that where you grow up defines where you can go. I hope things will change, but we’re a long way.