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Overwhelming Nuance - Dancing Crohn's Disease

Below is small segment of my Dance Studies Research Project, "Cripping Dance: Radical Representations of the Disabled Dancing Body." It's the bit I wrote about my own work, Overwhelming Nuance (excerpted below), which, as you will see, was inspired by the feelings of denial that so often accompany disease. 

Nearly four years after I was diagnosed with Crohn's, it flared massively. Lost in the idea that "my disease will not define my life", I ignored for months the signs of the looming crash. This breakdown forced me to come to terms with the reality of my disease. I suddenly understood that the idea that the mind might overcome the body just supported the willful denial of my disease. After this experience, determined to force an openness about disease in my own life, I claimed disability as part of my identity and choreographed my own "crip" coming out.

Overwhelming Nuance opens with one woman standing directly center. Four more women stand behind her in a straight line across the back edge of the space. Each faces directly front as the sound of a shaking pill bottle fills the space. The sound continues, and the woman at center calmly speaks, "I'm fine. I'll be fine. Tomorrow will be better. I'm fine..." She continues with variations of these phrases. The four dancers standing in the line curl in their toes and extend them with tension, slowly releasing them back to the ground. They sporadically push their folded hands across their stomachs and contract their necks, pulling their heads down and to their shoulders, outwardly indicating a very internal experience. They each perform the same movements, but at different times and in different orders, making each dancer's experience extremely personal.

The four dancers slowly drop each movement and lean forward slightly, expectantly. Suddenly they take a few unison steps straight forward, closing the gap between themselves and the woman at center, whose speech grows in intensity along with the rhythmic shaking of the pill bottles. The four suddenly embody an urgency that the earlier movement lacked. While they perform the same three movements, the gestures become sharp and harsh as they approach center.

The four again walk downstage, this time stopping at different intervals. They pass the center dancer, whose energy builds as she insists that she's "fine". The four dancers pause for a split second, then take four unison steps, this time in different directions. They take over the entire downstage area, demanding immediate attention. Their movement suddenly becomes large and three-dimensional. The arm that once simply traced a line across the stomach now thrashes to the side, as if it could no longer restrict itself to a simple swipe across the stomach, carrying the entire body into a wide lunge. The neck that before curled the head in towards the shoulder now effects the entire upper spine. The now numerous pill bottles shake incessantly overhead. The now only partially visible woman at center screams "I'm fine! I'm, I'm f-f-fine!" Getting caught up in the intensity of her words. This nearly unbearable intensity continues until everything cuts suddenly to silence.

The first section of Overwhelming Nuance constitutes the staged representation of my coming out. Tired of feeling the need to suppress my disease both for myself to make it through the day and to make others comfortable, I used the four dancers and the text to display the idea that, no matter how fiercely one resists, eventually the elaborate lie (term stolen from Lisa Gonzales) of normality implodes, leaving behind only physical and emotional wreckage.

More than all of this, however, this performance acts out the tension of the invisibly disabled body. While, for me, the swipe of the folded hand across the stomach abstracts a gesture I perform on a regular basis to soothe my stomach, the curled toes represent my arthritic feet and ankles, and the build of the words verbalize what happens in my head to get myself through a rough day, these things could and do mean something very different for a non-disabled audience member. Because no signifiers of disability exist on stage, the non-disabled audience perceives it as a "normal" performance. While this piece embodied my crip coming out, it potentially reads simply as an intense build to chaos. The spectator's knowledge stops at the movement, text and bodies onstage. My dance passes, just as I do, for normal.


  1. Mags this is amazing! I think this is a success. I think your dance is very powerful!

  2. This is pretty intense. A good visual of the fear, uncertainty, and denial of someone feeling new chronic pains. We are not all doctors and the persistance of strange pains can be quite concerning. Even after having Crohn's for almost 10 years, I still find myself denying that I am sick and pushing myself to do things that I sometime shouldn't do.

  3. As always, your writing is amazing. I am so glad I was there to see this dance performed. You are an inspiration to me...and I'm so proud to call you my best friend.

  4. Nadia - Thank you, m'dear! I really appreciate it.

    Tim - Thank you. Denial really is a huge issue. It's taken me a long time to understand the fine line between positivity and denial. And, like you said, it's still not easy.

    Baylee - Thanks, friend. I'm glad you were there too. It was a pretty big night.

  5. Thanks for a marvelous posting! I actually enjoyed reading it, you are a great author.
    I will be sure to bookmark your blog and will come back someday.

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