Episode 23:

The Story of Dancing Kitty

Published: March 2012: Updated August 2017

Partners: Della Hasselle (DNAinfor.com)

Who was it that said ‘Dance every day like nobody is watching’? You should! Dance is a great activity for everyone and in Manhattan there is a women called Kitty Lunn who is running some innovative and inclusive dance classes for the local community. Get your dancing shoes on and have a look at this great episode.

Let’s get this straight—I’m a big fan of dance! But I’m a useless dancer—although I did do a rather impressive ‘PoGo’ circa 1982! But I think, together with gardening, it is one of the secrets to a long and happy life. So if you can dance in the garden, you are on a winner!

I digress. Today’s episode, you may have gathered, is about dance for people with disability. I was doing some research for this episode and came across an excellent article from Della Hasselle at DNAinfo.com (Manhattan Local News). Thanks to Della and DNAinfo for letting us adapt their article here.

Della tells the story of Kitty Lunn. Kitty is a dancer, but not quite the way she imagined when she was younger. You see, Kitty slipped on a piece of ice one day and fell down some stairs, shattering her vertebrae in several places.

Let Kitty pick up the story… click on the image:

I didn’t know any disabled dancers… I thought it was over.
—Kitty Lunn

These days, some 25 years later, Lunn can be found in a studio on the Upper West Side, Manhattan practicing degages—a sharp movement of the legs—with her arms. Lunn teaches in a weekly class, from her wheelchair, which she’s undertaken in addition to preparation for the fall season of her company, “Infinity Dance Theater.”

Lunn’s keeps the schedule of any other dancer. She’s has rehearsals several times a week for her professional company of disabled and non-disabled dancers, and takes class at Steps on Broadway almost every day since starting the company in 1995.

Her dedication, she said, is intentional—she wants to prove to other disabled dancers that a wheelchair doesn’t mean the end of a career.

People make assumptions about people with disabilities, especially in dance, where your body is your instrument … The dance world has been known to have prejudices about what a dancer should look like. That’s a very big form of discrimination.
Kitty Lunn

Lunn’s story is perfect material for a feature film. She, and other disabled dancers from social wheelchair dancing groups from the United States and abroad, informed the New York-based movie “Musical Chairs.”

The film, directed by Susan Siedelman, portrays a disheartened ballroom dancer from the Upper East Side who is also in a wheelchair.

Although the movie is about competitive ballroom dancing, and Lunn describes herself as a ballet and modern dancer, the main issue that both Lunn and Siedelman have brought up is that there aren’t enough resources for disabled dancers of any kind in New York or the rest of the U.S. Wheelchair dancing hasn’t seemed to catch on, even though it’s popular in Europe.

In fact, the American DanceWheels Foundation, one of the area’s only nonprofit dedicated to the art of wheelchair ballroom and Latin dance, has only a handful of resources available to disabled New Yorkers, and no regular studio classes devoted to the sport.

Not only, historically, have people been excluded from something like dancing, they haven’t been given the opportunity to learn mainstream technique at all… There aren’t that many teachers like myself out there, with disabilities, who know what to do with that
—Kitty Lunn

Both Siedelman and Lunn underscore the importance of having a support system for people who are disabled. Both the movie and Lunn’s tale are essentially love stories.

In “Musical Chairs,” Armando, an aspiring Latin dancer and janitor from the Bronx, also saves Mia from a deep depression by winning her trust, and eventually convincing her to enter a wheelchair-friendly ballroom competition with him.

But not every disabled dancer has a Romeo to rescue them, and Siedelman says she tried hard to make an attempt to show what it meant to be a struggling, performer.

Using actual actors with disabilities in the film, such as hip-hop dancer and actress Auti Angel, Siedelman touched upon the depression and hopelessness a disabled dancer often feels, and what it’s like to overcome the horror and chagrin of falling out of a chair during a choreographic mishap.

“I wasn’t familiar with how beautiful and expressive it could be, and that’s the thing that really surprised me,” she said. “The amazing thing about the dance sequences in the film is that they’re so lively and sexy”
—Susan Siedelman

But the real story is a little more complicated than what plays out in the film.

The hardest part is trying to get an audience—whether on stage or in a social dancing situation—to take them seriously, and not pity them for their disability.

But this is more of…I’m dancing, and I’m doing choreography … We’re enjoying it, and we’re having fun, and it’s something anybody else would do—it’s not a pity thing
—Kitty Lunn

Lunn certainly doesn’t play into pity. She gives the class at no cost, but her dancers, no matter their level of disability, are expected to show up on time and try their hardest.

She describes herself as “strict but fair”—after all, it’s only by adhering to the standards that other dancers have.

It’s paid off—over the past 10 years, her company has regularly been shown at the much-respected Joyce Theater.

This is such an integral part of who I am. I am a dancer.
—Kitty Lunn

If you have been involved in dance for people with disability we would love to hear from you to add to this story over time. Please get in contact and tell us your story.

We hope you have enjoyed this episode and it has inspired you a little to get out there and shake your booty!

Let’s DANCE!!

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About the author: Peter Downs

About the author: Peter Downs

Founding Director - The Inclusion Club

Peter is Founding Director of The Inclusion Club and Manager of Play by the Rules – a national initiative to promote safe, fair and inclusive sport. Peter has worked for over 25 years in the field of inclusive sport, disability sport and physical activity including 17 years managing the Australian Sports Commission’s Disability Sport Unit.  In 2013 Peter was fortunate enough to receive a Churchill Fellowship to study models of best practice in inclusive sport and physical activity.