Changé: dance and movement after becoming disabled

Changé: Dance and movement after becoming disabled

*** this originally published in the 2022 fall print issue of Thiiird Magazine. Ballet dancer Bridgit Kuenning-Pollpeter’s personal experience navigating dance, blindness and chronic pain.

Etendre (to stretch)

A reach back into the past

I remember when my body flowed in graceful arcs, pirouetting towards a distant point. My limbs a fluid motion, bending, twisting, circling, transitioning from move to move.

Now, the distant point is a swirling TV fuzz that is my vision since becoming blind. And my fluid, graceful motions jerk and halt mid-move, chronic pain and fatigue syndrome creating inflexible limbs.

Adjusting my movement after becoming disabled is purging every sexist, ableist ideal ingrained in me. Detritus constantly surging up. Decades of sexist and ableist notions dictating what my body should look like, how it should move.

I started losing my vision in my early 20s, just as I was accepted into a prestigious performing arts school. My plans braked, swerving off into the weeds. 

It wasn’t so much about my physical abilities, which were intact, but I wondered how I would now be perceived. I left performing to focus on writing. At home, I continued to slip on my pointe shoes and dance. At weddings and parties and just with friends, I still tore up dance floors. Then, a few years ago, in my late 30s, I developed chronic pain/fatigue syndrome. It’s progressively getting worse, impacting my muscles and joints and general range of motion.

Dancers and performers are expected to move in traditional ways. It’s not common to find instructors and studios and companies that think outside the traditional. Instead, they cling to limiting views of movement and bodies.

Relever (to rise)

Hope for the future

When Ali Stroker won a Tony award in 2019 for her role in Oklahoma, people took notice, especially the disability community. Stroker uses a wheelchair, and she redefined movement on a professional stage. She also performed on stage during the Tony awards, demonstrating to millions of viewers that disability doesn’t have to be a limitation.

Stroker’s win and step-up into the spotlight encouraged me. Perhaps my performing days are not gone, I thought. I bolstered myself, took some deep breaths and went on a handful of auditions in late 2019. Unfortunately, the pandemic brought all this to a standstill for me. And since 2019, my CPFS has progressed.

Jerron Herman, Alice Sheppard, Laurel Lawson, Antoine Hunte, Yo-Yo Lin, Pelenakeke Brown are just a few disabled dancers shaking up the dance world. Each is an activist, using dance and performance to deconstruct movement, revealing that all bodies and all abilities can express themselves through movement. It’s a beacon to disabled people, emboldening us to explore our individual physicality’s. And it’s a notice to non-disabled people, proving we deserve a place on stages too.

These dancers’ limbs soar and slide in concert with their disability, not in spite of. Wheelchairs and canes incorporated into performances, disability an asset, these dancers do not apologize. These bodies defy limitations established by rigid ableist structures. Each breaks barriers one movement at a time.

I read about these dancers and watch their performances, and a heat ignites inside me, stoking a dwindling flame. Yet, I continue to wrestle with my own identity, questioning my place to take center stage; or back stage, or maybe the wings; or even just 

at home. I’m weighed down by these ideals about bodies and movement inflicted on society, on me. It’s a binding that is difficult to unravel.

Tourner (to turn)

Adjusting in the present

My nine-year-old son randomly brags to anyone who will listen that his mom used to be able to hold her leg up over her head. I laugh and smile in these moments, but my face also flushes, my gut tightening. I want to resemble a person I no longer am. A person who knew few physical restrictions.

And yet, I am this person, past and present, coexisting in a changing body. Stiff muscles and popping joints remind me of my limitations. The imbalance I have experienced since becoming blind shifts my center of gravity at times.

I spin and spin and spin and spin until my lungs feel like they will burst. I halt in fourth position but quickly lose my footing. The clock in the kitchen orientates me as I take shaky steps to the couch. I plunge onto it, perching, squeezing my eyes shut. I slam a door closed on an image in my mind of a younger, lithe version of me fouettéing across a stage.

I don’t know how long it will take to embrace this version of me. It doesn’t help when my body constantly feels in flux. But this dance revolution gives me hope. Gives me permission to accept a fluid identity. I either join the barrage resisting tired, antiquated ideals about body and dance, or I lose myself.

When my five-year-old asks the Amazon Echo to play his favorite song. A rhythmic thumping permeates the room. It crawls up my body, tingling. My hips isolate to the beat, head bopping in sync. A grin spreads across my face as I hold my hands out towards him. We jump and jerk and flop our bodies, our legs and arms and torsos hitting the counts.

My knee locks for a beat, a spasm flashing down my shin. I pause. “You okay, Mom?” he asks.


By Imperfection

Bridgit Kuenning-Pollpeter is a mom and writer from Omaha, Nebraska but recently relocated to Urbandale, IA. When she’s not chasing children, picking up messes or reorganizing the house, she enjoys yoga or reading to relax. In her spare time (A.K.A. her dreams) she’s a Broadway star. Kuenning-Pollpeter is a freelance marketer during the day, a creative writer at night. Her work has appeared in the Brevity blog, The Omaha World Herald, 13th Floor, Misbehaving Nebraskans, Hippocampus, Emerging Nebraska Writers and Random Sample Review. She has her BFA and MFA in writing from the University of Nebraska Omaha. Her essay “The Body” was a McKenna Fellowship finalist, and her essay “Imperfection” was a 2020 Best of the Net Nominee. She is blind and writes frequently about disability. She’s working on a memoir about the disabled feminine experience. With the kids though, expect it in stores in about a decade.

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