Invitation to Dance @ Accessibility at Lincoln Center

film still: Simi Linton protests in NYC

film still: Simi Linton protests in NYC

On Friday, July 24th, as part of New York City’s celebration of the 25th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Accessibility at Lincoln Center presented a free screening of Invitation to Dance, a documentary film by Christian von Tippelskirch and Simi Linton that explores the U.S. disability rights movement through Simi’s life story. In college, Simi was injured while hitchhiking to Washington to protest the Vietnam War. As she transitioned into life with a wheelchair, Simi came into her identity as a disabled woman who loves dance. For Simi, “Dance is the public expression of pleasure and freedom” and she sees dance as a platform to deliberate the current issues of the disability rights movement. The film highlights dance artist like AXIS Dance, Heidi Latsky Dance, Lawrence Carter-Long, and Alice Sheppard, alongside stories of people with disabilities finding joy in social dance. Says Simi, “dancing shouldn’t be restricted to people on feet, people who can see, people who are young and thin and popular, or people who can perform all the moves. Our bodies in motion insist that the term ‘dance’ and ‘dancer’ be redefined.” Her belief in the inclusivity of dance and her approach to disability culture have made her a leader in the disability rights movement.

Invitation to Dance tackles many of the current disability rights issues. In explaining how to approach accessibility, the film shifts the responsibility from the person with the disability to society at large—an idea that is pivotal in disability culture. It means that instead of thinking that a disabled person can’t board the bus because they use a wheelchair, know that the disabled person can’t board the bus because the bus is not accessible. As the film points out, when something becomes more accessible, it doesn’t just benefit the disability community; it benefits society at large. Curb cuts are an example of this, providing a smooth ride not only for wheelchairs, but strollers, hotdog venders, suitcase carriers, 5 year olds on razor scooters, and the babysitters who end up pushing them. But the film points to the infuriating and little known fact that before curb cuts became a standard in New York City, the disability community fought for years, and it wasn’t their voice that was finally heard. It was the 7thAvenue fashion designers, or rather the people who carried their expensive dresses on trolleys, who complained of dropping their garments on the dirty street each time they fumbled over a curb.

But accessibility does not just mean usability. One scene in the film shows Simi lecturing to a class of architecture students about her experience at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, California. While the venue is technically ADA-compliant, the film showed how the wheelchair accessible entrance was barely wide enough for Simi’s power chair, did not allow enough room for someone to enter with her, and was built with walls that extended taller than the height of any person in a wheelchair. Basically, she could enter the building’s gorgeous facade, but she couldn’t enjoy any of Frank Gehry’s design. Beyond the right to access, the scene talks about the right to pleasure. The disability community deserves more than a rationing of comfort and the next generation of architects must strive to make buildings that are both physically and aesthetically accessible for all.

Invitation to Dance has screened in an array of venues and contexts, including: the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, the Social Justice Film Festival, the Margaret Meade Film Festival, disability film festivals, and others in Seattle, Moscow, Toronto, and Montreal; over 150 universities from Winnipeg to Texas; and for audiences both in and outside of the disability community. In short, as Simi described, “Invitation to Dance has been on the road.” Simi explained to me that for some, ”the appeal of the film is that it has those moments that wake people up to something that they’ve looked at in a very different way all their lives… It’s not being bludgeoned with a new idea as much as something that’s revealed to them that suddenly makes more sense as a way of thinking.” Unlike most stories about disability that make it to the mainstream media, which feed you immediate satisfaction with the disabled person’s ability to triumph over adversity (known as inspiration porn), Invitation to Dance affirms that the disability community is not just making progress towards combating discrimination, but contains also dancers, actors, writers, and athletes whose work is worthy of your attention. For anyone outside of the disability community looking for a way to enter into the world of disability culture and arts, this film is the perfect introduction.

Following the film screening, Christian and Simi took questions and comments from the audience. One man, who identified as having a disability since birth, complimented Christian and Simi on “creating the first film to address disabilities in the right way.” In a conversation with Christian later on, he said that this was the biggest compliment he and Simi could have received: “The film, in huge portion, was made for the disability community, and for disabled people. So, we always knew that it was important not just to make a film about disability for a larger audience. We knew from the beginning that it’s a thematic story, and the theme is not just of interest to anybody in the country who wants to know about disability. We wanted to make a film which really represents the interest of and the experience of disabled people.”

The evening ended with a DJ and a dance party, because after all, this was a Friday night, and everyone loves to dance. Simi is known for her dance parties, which she has made a tradition of at the Society for Disability Studies, a conference of academics, activists, artists, students and community members. Numerous people in the film credit Simi for dragging them out on the dance floor. As Peter Trojić, a wheel chair athlete, said to me at the dance party that night, “Simi helped me come out of the accessible bathroom stall,” and realize his love for dancing. I asked Simi if the film is always paired with a dance party (because it’s a fantastic idea). She said she wanted that to be the case, but it hadn’t happened until this night at Lincoln Center. “This was the first, hopefully of many, whether we’re at the screening or not. We’re hoping to also pair it, down the road, with a dance performance.” Similarly, one of the audience members also asked why Christian and Simi included dance in the film. Simi answered, “the dance floor is the frontier for us to cross over.”

Moving forward, the film’s distributor Kino Lorber is in conversations about limited distribution in theaters and on Netflix. Until then, you can learn more about the film and watch the trailer here.

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