A quarter-century milestone: 25 years of mixed-ability dance at Karen Peterson Dancers

Photo: John Beauregard, Bernadette Salgado, Katrina Weaver, Lize-Lotte Pitlo, Karen Peterson and Shawn Buller. Courtesy of Karen Peterson Dancers.

For more than 25 years, Karen Peterson, founder and executive director of Miami-based Karen Peterson Dancers, has spread the word: mixed-ability dancers are dancers. Full stop.

Recently, the company performed at “A New Definition of Dance” in Tampa, Fla. With funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, this international mixed-ability showcase featured artists from all over the world–ballroom dancers from Eastern Europe, hip-hop artists from Canada, traditional Chinese dancers from Beijing, drumming dancers from Africa. Seeing all of these artists with disabilities teach and perform their art demonstrated to Peterson that the dance world has changed since she founded her company 25 years ago.

But there’s always work to do. Peterson, who won a Knight Arts Challenge grant in 2011 to support her mission of inclusive dance, now splits her attention between supporting mixed-ability dancers across Miami-Dade County and her other, perhaps greater, challenge: fundraising. She says all she needs is the support of the community to keep going.

How has lack of adequate funding for programming like yours impacted the mixed-ability dance community? My unique, quirky and one-of-a-kind dance organization is always searching for investments to keep the development of the programming moving forward for the next 25 years. The Talent Showcase, an in-school residency program [that’s] now in its 10th year, has grown from 50 to 250 students. My cultural exchange program has introduced my teachings and performances to nine foreign countries. And we continue to create and present new work by varied choreographers on an annual basis. No other dance organization in Dade County has done so much on so little, and has impacted thousands of individuals in the dance and disability community on the ideas of inclusion. My dream is to have the proper funding to match the Miami-Dade Cultural Affairs dollars that I have received since 1990 in order to pay dancers a decent salary.

A three-minute video retrospective of Karen Peterson Dancers’ 25-year history.

What are some of the major challenges mixed-ability dancers face, and how does Karen Peterson Dancers address those challenges? Mixed-ability dancers offer their unique physical abilities to each other and meet each other halfway to create a seamless dialogue of movement. During our rehearsal creative process, I ask myself and the dancers, what are our common denominators? How can we complement each other and create something new from our difference? Can we use each other to highlight our strengths rather than our weaknesses?

Another challenge that we face in the studio is patience and the time we need to explore and research movement possibilities. Because my process takes more time than typical choreography, we need more time in the studio, which equals more dollars to pay dancers.

My biggest challenge is to pay dancers for the rehearsal time on the very little funding. Each dancer makes approximately $50 per week over the course of a seven-month season. The format of the dance company with paid salaries is almost extinct, but in my special circumstance, I cannot pick up a group of trained dancers and complete a project in several weeks. The investigative time it takes to explore different abilities is more than the traditional form. Finding the dollars to pay dancers for more time in the studio is a constant battle.

Another challenge is access. We recently traveled to Tampa, and accessibility is always an issue on the road, in hotels and in the theater. We are very lucky to perform in the United States, where the [Americans with Disabilities Act] laws are usually enforced and up-to-date. When we have traveled to other countries–for example, Bosnia or [Serbia]–their standards are not up to code. We have improvised on our journeys and dealt with cobblestone streets, non-cut curbs, non-access bathrooms, non-access dressing rooms and so on. My dancers are very generous in spirit, and part of their duty is to help solve the accessibility problems that we face outside of the studio.

What still needs to be done (or can be done) to destigmatize mixed-ability dancers? The quality of mixed ability work has developed by leaps and bounds over the past decade, and hundreds of groups have heightened the attention to the professional work being developed around the world. Since 1990, many more groups celebrate the creative catalyst in their communities and embrace diversity and innovation. Mixed-ability has become destigmatized by the sheer growth of the form.

There are fewer stigmas as more choreographers work within this genre and develop interesting and creative art. However, there are still many barriers to cross and many have subtle or not-so-subtle prejudices with disability. Some audiences love the work and are moved by the message, and others may not be so likely to attend a concert out of fear, out of artistic choice or apathy.

Once a person sits in the wheelchair, I guess there are preconceived notions about the individual. For example, our company has been in restaurant when a waiter has asked me what a chair dancer wants to eat–as if the dancers cannot speak for themselves.

One of the most positive elements in my organization is the teen program that is based on inclusion. The teens who use wheelchairs, or have intellectual or learning disabilities, create and perform on stage with all of their peers. I have noticed a deep empathy or bond between the students when it comes to assisting each other, especially during the performance. They know everyone has equal value in the performance. Our talent showcase breaks barriers and stigma for these middle and high school students as they go through the process of creation and performance. They are our future ambassadors for physically integrated dance.

Dancers Katrina Weaver and Shawn Buller. Photo by Karime Arabia​, courtesy of Karen Peterson Dancers.

What’s coming up for Karen Peterson Dancers—any specific performances, workshops, etc. scheduled for the remainder of the year? For the remainder of the season, we have several important events on a local and national level. On Oct. 28 at 5:30 p.m., we will perform at the Miami Dade Wolfson campus to celebrate National Disability Employment Awareness Month. We will present a one-hour educational show that will include performance, video, demonstration, how we make the work and a question-and-answer session with the audience. The performance is free.

Also this year we have commissioned a new work by co-choreographers Juan Maria Seller and Katrina Weaver entitled “Inside the Brick.” We are looking for an underwriter to help bring the work to full fruition for the May performance. We are also in conversation with [Miami choreographer] Pioneer Winter about the possibility of a duet created by him with Marjorie Burnett [a dancer in the company].

For the May 2016 program, we will also present collaboration with six Portuguese dancers from Lisbon and the five Karen Peterson Dancers company members. We will begin the creative process in April in Lisbon with the Amalgama and Plural integrated dance companies. The work will be finalized and premiered at Miami Dade County Auditorium [in] May 2016 and will feature 10 artists, four with disabilities. This is a continuation of my nine-year history of collaborating and creating cultural exchanges with dance artists from overseas. We are looking for a corporate sponsor to assist with the cultural exchange.

We will also have a fundraiser on Valentine’s Day at 6 p.m. at my studio space, Excello, and will perform small excerpts of student and company work along with champagne and chocolate desserts.

We also have a modern dance, non-competitive program for chair and non-chair dancers at the company’s home, for students ages eleven and older.

What is the future of Karen Peterson Dancers beyond 2015? As a wrap-up, I feel totally satisfied [with] where the company is right now. I am actively searching for new funding sources and new board members who can help me reach my goals for the next 25 years. I know that this is not easy, but we have a proven track record with the program that has been tested over and over again in different schools, in different countries and at different performance venues on a local, national and international [level].

Karen Peterson Dancers will celebrate National Disability Employment Awareness Month in the second-floor auditorium at Miami Dade College’s Wolfson Campus on Wednesday, Oct. 28 at 5:30 p.m. Admission is free.