DANCE OF DIVERSITY
Japanese wheelchair performer has a message: diversity is cool. Story by Linda Sieg, Photos by Kim Kyung-hoon in Tokyo
Wheelchair performer dazzles Japan
Whirling, spinning, reaching, grasping — Japanese wheelchair dancer Kenta Kambara’s emotive performances are wordless testimony to artistic passion and possibility. Born with spina bifida, a disorder that paralysed his lower body, Kambara seeks to send a message to disabled and able-bodied people alike: it’s okay to be different.
“If you can’t walk with your legs, it’s okay to walk with your hands. If there is something you want to do but cannot, it’s okay to find another way,” says Kambara, 34, a computer systems engineer and father of a two-year-old daughter.
“These days, people use the keyword ‘diversity’ but not many people have experienced it themselves. I want people to understand by seeing me dance that it’s precisely because my body is different that it is interesting.
Then that will become a trigger to accept other people’s differences.
“I also want them to think, ‘Wow, that’s cool!’”
Kambara was in third grade at elementary school in Kobe, western Japan, when his mother told him he would never walk.
“It was a huge shock and I remember crying,” he said. “But that was the trigger to think about how to confront my disability and find different ways to achieve my goals.”
Kambara, whose upper body is well-developed from propelling himself with his arms since childhood, began dancing five years ago. Less than a year later, he performed at the closing ceremony of the Rio Paralympics in Brazil.
He was hoping to perform at the Tokyo Paralympics opening or closing ceremonies this year, but that dream is now on hold until 2021 with the cancellation of the Games because of the global coronavirus pandemic.
The self-taught Kambara’s repertoire includes handstands on his wheelchair, serpentine moves of his lean, muscular arms and slender fingers, and dizzying spins on a collapsed wheelchair, itself an integral part of his performances.
“I’d already come to terms with my disability before I began dancing so it’s not as if dancing ‘saved’ me,” he said. “But before I started dancing, I often felt my wheelchair was cumbersome in my daily life. … But when it comes to dancing, I feel my use of a wheelchair makes it unique.
“Disabilities have a negative image, but when it comes to dance, this is something only I can do.”
Although he had long tended to hide his paralysed legs out of embarrassment, that feeling changes when he dances. “What I had been hiding becomes something unique that moves people’s hearts,” he said.
Kambara also performs and lectures at schools, where youngsters are clearly impressed.
“I thought it was amazing that someone born with a disability could do such an intense, cool dance,” said eight-yearold elementary school student Konatsu Matsuo. “Before I thought being in a wheelchair was really tough,” she said. “Now I think that life with a wheelchair can be fun.”
Besides aiming to be part of Paralympics ceremonies, whenever they are held, Kambara harbours a bigger dream — to dance at the Olympics closing ceremony as a way to create more interest in the Paralympic Games.
“There shouldn’t be a division such that if you are disabled, you can only perform at the Paralympics,” he said in an interview earlier this month, before organisers confirmed that the Games would not take place this summer.
“Even if the Games are cancelled, I will have another chance to stand on a world stage,” he said.
I want people to understand by seeing me dance that it’s precisely because my body is different that it is interesting