Dancing on Wheels
MOST show dancers strut out onto the stage from either the left or right curtain, or climb up a set of stout stairs to get out in front of the audience. Today, however, it’s going to be a ramp. The team prepare themselves and soon as they are called, breaks are released and the wheels of their chairs begin to turn. With a short run up they can all wheel out onto stage with some pizzazz to greet the waiting audience.
It’s a just a small change that can make a world of difference for physically disabled people who also happen to love dance and the performing arts – and this definitely a group who likes to dance. The groups are telling a story to the audience about their experiences. The story starts out with a wheel-chair bound person trying to enter dancing lessons – but he is ignored. He tries to self train, but at first fails. It appears that there will be no one who can help him just do the thing he loves. Then, a warm hand comes to touch him on the shoulder. Other people in wheelchairs appear onstage and begin their dances. Finally, there is freedom and joy.
Once the three minute dance is over, the performers hold placards declaring “We are ables”, which elicits a fantastic applause from the crowd gathered at the Hlaing Tharyar Public Park. The event was held to mark International Day of Persons with Disabilities on December 3. The performers that night are part of the only wheelchair dance ground in Myanmar, which was formed in 2014 as part of the ASEAN Disabled Art Festival, led here by the Myanmar Independent Living Initiative (MILI).
Their work as performers puts them deeply at odds with the normal adult outcomes for disabled Myanmar people, which can include menial, low paid work and a life spent dependent on family and charity. The performance ultimately serves as the expression of dignity and achievement.
Let’s burn rubber Dancing was never considered part of the life or culture of disabled people in the past, said Pyae Phyo Aung, troupe member, so being asked to work with a dance crew with wheelchairs was a surprise. As a keen performer, Pyae Phyo Aung was immediately excited at the opportunity. Hanli Khaing Hnin, from Kachin, was another member who possessed a burning desire to join the program. The important thing was being competitive with men and showing that she can turn and burn rubber with the best of them. With a professional Japanese trainer, things picked up steam after the creation of the crew and word started to get around.
Unfortunately, the international professional dance trainer was only there for a limited time, and finding people with the expertise to take on wheelchair dancing is tough, so the groups train under their own techniques with everything they have learned so far, and improvise their lessons. They say they are keen to find someone to fill the role of leader trainer again.
Of the original core group, only three of seven remain today, though overall the troupe has gained new members. There are three male performers and three women ranging in age from 27 to 36. Ultimately, it’s the people close to Yangon where the crew is centred who stay for the long haul and can come to join performances.
Professionals don’t do it on the cheap The number of stage invites the crew gets is actually very few, unless it’s for specific events such as the International Day of Persons with Disabilities where they’re front and centre. Funding is also an issue, having basically dried up since 2014. MILI was providing funding in those early years but now, the team is running on the funds they can garner from the event deals they can make. A single wheelchair build light and strong enough to perform in costs around K2,000,000, and then there are repairs.
“Since our movement relies on quality chairs and ease of movement, you’ve got to be careful when you’re performing. You fear harming yourself and your equipment,” said Aung Ko Ko, who mis-balanced and fell when trying to perform a handstand due to an uneven floor. He knows a thing or two about wheelchair use, being a former basketball player who competed at multiple ASEAN Para Games.
The plan for the team is to keep working on increasing their skills to attract ASEAN or intentional attention and get invited to events, and gain enough money for regular practice and to bring back a professional trainer.
“Yes, I’m disabled, but I want to dance just like everybody else. So, I just make an effort,” said troupe member Than Soe Aung.
Wheelchair dancer's performance on December 3 at Hlaing Thar Yar Public Park, Yangon.
Smiles and dance only.
Ready to perform.