Rotations: Crips and Care During Covid-19
(listen to the selection, read by the author)
I want you to take this moment to get comfortable, sit, lie down, whatever feels good for you.
We accept your time. We accept that you might need to pause, leave, or adapt movement to suit your needs.
We are all here, connected but apart, across many moana (oceans) and fanua (lands). If you can send some acknowledgement and energy to your fellow participants in whatever fanua (lands) and moana (oceans) that might be holding them, do so now.
Let’s breathe together. As you inhale, imagine that your tummy is the fanua, the land – hold your breath for four counts – tasi, lua, tolu, fa – and as you exhale, imagine that you are gently breathing new life, stories for you and your ancestors through this breath.
What do you want this space to be for you?
What do you hope this space will be for each other?
I’ve been thinking a lot about the framework of the keyboard as a place within to move and create. I have been thinking about my ancestors and their indigenous knowledge that is sitting within the console and how I use this place to be in crip time and to travel and move simultaneously.
I like thinking about this space as a provocation to dance within, too.
How can we enter and return to ourselves?
What might these words mean for you?
My relationship to technology changed when Covid-19 emerged as a real threat in March 2020. Previously, this relationship had been generative, with technology offering me a scope to connect with Sāmoan cultural practices, and to traverse and create choreographic scores and visual poems—a new direction for my art practice. But from April onward, the Internet became an alienating, overwhelming place with non-disabled people loudly exploring the digital space and then—finally—offering some accessible options.
It wasn’t just my relationship with technology that shifted; almost everything in my life changed. After six-and-a-half years in New York City, I moved back home, to Aotearoa (New Zealand). In those early weeks in March, I had lost most of my work for the coming year and my family kept telling me worriedly “the arts are dead.” So, I pivoted into a full-time role—leading a historically white, non-disabled founded, integrated dance company, and I was the first disabled artist to do so.
Rotations grew from a longing for home (the one I had established as an adult), crip kinship, knowledge sharing, and wanting to create our own space for crips in the digital world. Rotations transpired through conversations with my co-founder, Yo-Yo Lin— affectionately known as my “work wife.” Often, disabled artists are first introduced to the arts by a non-disabled person, especially in the dance world. Instead, how incredible would it be to learn from other crips? It can be so hard to articulate yourself, and what is becoming increasingly clear to me is that when I am around other disabled people (or on disabled Twitter), I often realise, “oh, it’s not just me that does that weird thing?” That “weird thing” we do, as in: we in fact have this strange, often awkward but beautiful way of navigating and discovering the world and our bodies. Could we use the principles of crip time, Mia Mingus’s conceptualization of access intimacy, and other crip wisdom to facilitate accessible, digital, workshops? Could we possibly facilitate crip magic across time and space?
We were drawn to concepts that were cyclical in nature and hoped that Rotations would reflect a deepening practice, with different modalities. There is something about the moon, no matter what phase she is in, whether she is waxing or waning—she remains a potent energy.
We invited eight artists at varying stages of their creative careers to facilitate a workshop based on their own movement practices. Often, when people are asked to teach, it is because we are deemed experts in something; disabled artists often don’t get asked to teach, because we aren’t considered experts or our practices are too varied and multi-disciplinary. We purposefully chose artists who we knew had established methodologies as well as others that we thought had interesting ways of exploring disability aesthetics and the body.
Our team was a mix of queer, disabled, chronically ill, neurodivergent and predominantly POC artists. From our collective zoom experiences, we knew that access needs in the digital space would be different from in-person access needs. Often, technological glitches could be the initial barrier to participation but there were often ongoing technical issues such as navigating the zoom room, enabling captions or pinning the interpreter, and organising break-out rooms. Hosting in the digital sphere is a huge responsibility and is integral to people feeling comfortable in the digital space. We recognised that it’s a form of access but we also decided that specialised support such as audio description needed to be offered and so we fashioned two roles—one of the zoom doula (David Sierra) who held all the technological needs for both facilitator and audience as well as a dedicated access doula (Amber Hopkins) who participants could reach out to separately and who would support any other needs. When we reflected back on these roles and the importance in separating them, Amber said it felt strange to just be there to witness and hold space specifically for access, but in the end that was the point, that at any time there may be a need and they would be ready.
Yo-Yo began the cycle with her class by encouraging us to journal about our illness/ disability experiences, and then asking us to create movement rituals based upon what we had journaled. Zoom facilitating can feel a bit like talking into the ether (is anybody out there…?), but after her first exercise, we received affirming, enthusiastic feedback. I was holding the role of access doula, so I was furiously typing in the chat to attendees who may have entered late, “hi! I’m your access doula today…” But afterwards we felt elated. It worked!
During nearly every class, there were expansions of time. When an exercise resonated deeply, time would stretch out, and it really felt like we were together, regardless of distance. I remember during Anna Gichan’s class, “Textured Listening,” she asked us to focus on our mouths and draw out the letters in the word breathe – B R E A T H E. Time slowed down as she asked us to explore the mouth as a choreographic site.
Rodney Bell asked us to share hauaa (vibrations). His class, more than any other, felt like a traditional dance class, with exercises and presenting back to our peers. We explored and grounded ourselves in the four indigenous elements of breath: hau (air), wai ora (water breath), papa (into the earth breath), and ahi (fire breath). As the class went on, we became more and more centered within ourselves and then with each other. Time collapsed and it really did feel like we were sharing haa (breath) together (it felt otherworldly). His class was an opportunity to learn about Te Ao Maaori (the Maaori worldview). As he began his pepeha—introduction of his whakapapa (genealogies) and place centering—our CART transcriber excitedly interrupted, wanting to know how to spell some of the Maaori words. In their excitement to provide access, they had also interrupted Rodney as he ancestrally introduced himself. After that happened, I would type words into the chat to help translate and offer access, but it felt like an awkward moment of push/pull due to overlapping needs in direct opposition to cultural protocols in the digital and accessible worlds. This is often the negotiation that occurs when one is offering access; it’s not tikanga (protocol) to interrupt someone when they speak their pepeha, but the access worker wanted to be accessible by spelling and representing what they were transcribing. It’s this negotiation of needs, time, space, and culture that can be difficult but also very human to witness. It also demonstrates the need to have more indigenous access workers.
Our fifth class was Perel’s, and I remember feeling on-edge that day. I was finding it harder to squeeze time into my day for Rotations, and felt swallowed up by the constraints and stress of trying to “lead” with the heaviness of often being the only disabled or person of colour in a room. I was noticing how tongue-tied I became in board meetings and that I was starting to doubt myself. Perel’s class asked us to be in bed. It was the middle of the day for me, but I welcomed the opportunity to just crawl into a ball. I ended up falling asleep and waking up part-way through. Lying down, curled up, felt like the right way to experience their class. Rotations, in a way, were the few times when I could rest and feel connected (without having to explain or engage) at the same time.
Facilitating across borders, political unrest, differing Covid-19 restrictions and navigating the world as disabled people, definitely impacted the timings of our latter classes. This occurred when we re-scheduled classes due to Australia-based Sarah Houbolt’s snap lockdowns as well the 2020 U.S. elections and the general anxiety of all this impacting our team. As my workload continued to grow and my capacity to support multiple projects was tested, I ended up taking a backseat and letting our Zoom doula manage communications with our artists and community. Increasingly, Rotations became a place where I turned up just as eagerly as any participant.
Because of what was going on in the increasingly anxious world, we ended up extending the classes into 2021. Kayla Hamilton opened by asking us, “what do you need in this moment?” I can’t remember what I said, but the prompt made me emotional. She spent some time with my response—so tenderly. I felt so relieved to admit to my peers that I was not okay. Kayla asked us to play with the idea of the cypher—dancing in a circle witnessing as one dancer has a turn in the center of the space. Kayla asked us to turn our videos on and off to simulate this experience. She asked us to explore audio description, as well as writing scores with audio description for each other. There were moments of delight as people I had regularly watched tuned in and created some delicate, fun, dance scores.
I witnessed a moment of true access intimacy when someone said they could share their dance but they couldn’t audio describe simultaneously. Without missing a beat another person quipped, “I can audio describe for you.” These moments of connection and care are what Rotations was all about, witnessing each other and ourselves, as well as exploring disability aesthetics together.
Sarah Houbolt finished the cycle by continuing to talk about audio description and the way they think about this language. That day, many new people joined us from the blind/low vision community, excitedly sharing with us. I felt like an invited guest.
Writing this essay has been difficult, to go back and remember and retrieve these memories. I suspect I’m still not over the trauma of 2020, on multiple levels. I came blazing in with genuine hope to change a historically non-disabled led dance company into a radical, disability led, cross-disciplinary arts company. But actually I found myself treated as a tokenistic POC leader, with little agency or power to change systems. You are perpetually trying to prove that you are ‘enough’ or that you can be trusted. Getting increasingly burnt out as I tried, I resigned after a year of Sisyphean efforts.
When I look back at this past year, Rotations is one of the few things that made sense for me. Rotations offered me an intimacy that I wasn’t expecting but very much needed. I guess tokenism feels like you are hyper-visible when you are in fact invisible—you are used as a prop signaling diversity without actually changing anything. It makes you feel exhausted and a little irrational, that the words you utter are empty, as people cut you off, or talk over you- right after you have successfully led a meeting with a funder. Rotations felt like I could turn up in whatever state I was in, remind myself that I had community without pretense, and, for a few hours, experience the slowing down of time, and, witness our beautiful disabled bodies—in all honesty, magic.
How can we enter and return to ourselves?
enter and return are two words I will always come back to. This push and pull of the beginning and the end, often being the same thing. Of it echoing indigenous frameworks, while it unassumingly sits there on my keyboard.
How can we enter and return to ourselves?
“Disability Futures in the Arts” is supported by the Canada Council for the Arts/Conseil des arts du Canada.
About the Author
An interdisciplinary artist, curator, and writer, Pelenakeke’s practice explores the intersections between disability cultural concepts and Sāmoan cultural concepts. Her work investigates sites of knowledge, and she uses technology, writing, poetry, and performance to explore these ideas. She is a globally located and recognised practitioner and has worked with The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gibney, Eyebeam Studio and more.