Deepening Our Inclusive Artistic Work: The Pan-Canadian Disability, Dance, Digital project

Members of Propeller Dance in performance at the NAC.
Members of Propeller Dance in performance at the NAC.
Members of Propeller Dance in performance at the NAC.
Members of Propeller Dance in performance at the NAC.
Members of Propeller Dance in performance at the NAC.
Members of Propeller Dance in performance at the NAC.

On a freezing winter day in 2020, Shara Weaver, Propeller Dance’s Co-Founder, Co- Artistic Director, was struggling to deal with the organization’s reality during the pandemic.  Shara is a neurodiverse, queer artist, choreographer and dance educator with lived experience in mental health and who incorporates Mad and Disability aesthetics, serious musicianship, and storytelling in her work.  

She remembers meeting virtually with her peers including Jenelle Rouse, Harmanie Rose and Naomi Brand of All Bodies Dance; Kathy Austin, Ashley Brodeur, Chawna Exner and Shannon K. Parker of National accessArts Centre, and her Co-Founder and Co- Artistic Director Renata Soutter along with Liz Winkelaar and Bella Bowes of Propeller Dance.  They all mentioned pivoting to online, but the conversation highlighted the dire need for technologies to have designs that consider the needs of artists with disabilities.   

That one conversation served as a tremendous catalyst, for from there, advisory and steering committees were set up and through the support of Canada Council for the Arts Digital Strategy Fund, the Pan-Canadian Dance and Disability Digital Network (DDD) project was born.

The Pan-Canadian Disability, Dance and Digital Network

In its first phase, 12 artists were selected who either self-identified as living with disability, or were deeply versed in inclusive design. Online digital presentations were delivered on a myriad of topics – all with a focus on collaboration and learning amongst art mediums.   

The second phase of the project involved two week-long in-person labs/incubators in April 2022 and April 2023, hosted at the National Arts Centre, with 25 dance and disability artists from across Canada.  

In 2022, among the various creative technicians in residence was Colin Clark, who introduced dancers to use Arduino boards–microcontrollers that turn inputs, like light on a sensor or a finger on a button into outputs, like triggering a sound or turning on an LED. 

From the learnings and successes of 2022, creative goals were set for 2023; to provide opportunities to receive choreographic coaching and technology mentorship, to network with peers, and to move with and learn from each other. 

A virtual reality pop-up installation orchestrated by Thea Scherer-Johnston and Rebecca Johnston to explore virtual reality and its usages. Vibrafusion Lab artists and engineers David Bobier and Jim Ruxton, who also participated in 2022, worked with artists to explore Woojer technology – originally designed for gaming – and a variety of sensors to feel sound. The technology takes haptics – the use of technology that stimulates the senses of touch and motion – one step further by reconfiguring sound as visceral sensations, and vice versa.  Additional mentorship was provided by light and sound automators and musicians Gift Tshuma and Charles Matthews who were new to the DDD this year. 

Jenelle Rouse, a Canadian, Deaf body-movement artist said of her experience: “The April incubator offered infinite possibilities of experimental development in our individual and collective art work. While we were familiar with and supportive of each other’s goals, we had many 'ah-ha' moments through collaborations and show-and-explain performances.  I left the end of the labs with a new insight, where I am more secured to continue exploring and executing my dance/performance projects.” 

Bella Bowes, a neurodiverse dancer, choreographer and children’s class teacher at Propeller Dance, as well as being on the steering committee for the DDD project says: “As a dancer with 16 years with Propeller Dance and someone on the autism spectrum, I have just completed my first piece of choreography, GOTTA DANCE: A New Step Every Day, about people at home coping with the isolation of the pandemic by becoming dogs and escaping to the park to run and play.  At DDD, I got to meet lots of peer dancers and experiment with different technologies while dancing - thinking about how I could use them in my pieces.” 

At the end of the 2023 residency, Shara Weaver circled back to her artistry: “I was so grateful to work as an artist with other incredible and talented artists in the beautiful spaces at the NAC. It was a thrill watching Dylan Phillips automate sound additions to Jesse Stewarts’ compositions in my collaborative creation for Propeller Dance Frame of Mind (a work about societal barriers utilizing Mad Dance aesthetics).  

“How remarable that from a virtual conversation in 2020, a joint project evolved to initiate technological research that grounds our work as artists with disabilities based on human-centered design principles. The collaborations that emerged between artists in this project, and across art mediums have been fundamentally career changing. And this isn’t the end – this network will continue!” 

The Pan-Canadian Disability, Dance and Digital network is grateful to the National Arts Centre for supporting this project, particularly to Producer Amanda Baumgarten, and Education Associate and Teaching Artist Sioned Watkins.  

DDD was co-presented by Propeller Dance and the National Arts Centre in partnership with All Bodies Dance Project, National AccessArts Centre, Vibrafusionlab, Gift Tshuma, Charles Matthews of Blurring the Boundaries, Thea and Rebecca Johnston, Colin Clark, Jenelle Rouse and Courage Bacchus along with the support of the Canada Council for the Arts Digital Strategy Fund.