To My Six-Year Old Self: We Made It!

By Abigail Brown
Abigail Brown: Fairy Tales
Like lots of little girls, I always wanted to be a ballerina. For my sixth birthday, I was taken to see a performance of Giselle at the famous dance venue Sadler’s Wells in London. The word ‘disability’ not yet in my vocabulary, I saw no reason why the pirouetting figure on the stage couldn’t be me.
Born with genetic collagen disorder osteogenesis imperfecta, also known as ‘OI’ or brittle bones, I was an unlikely ballet student. By the age of six I had sustained multiple broken bones, and was beginning to show the signs of degenerative hearing loss and scoliosis. 
And then I met a dance teacher who agreed to let me join her ballet class. Thanks to her kindness and patience, I stayed for ten years. The slow, controlled exercise of ballet was fantastic for my health.  But while my overall mobility increased, so did my consciousness of how that mobility looked. By my last lesson, I had learned to detest my body and felt nothing but disgust for its crass imitation of movements, which I had once imagined dancing with such grace.  
After becoming a full-time wheelchair user, I began to dream of dancing once more. In 2018 I signed up for a ten-week course in wheelchair ballroom dancing with Step Change Studios. Allowing myself to dance again was painful, both physically and emotionally. One of the ways I had learned to manage my disability was to make it the object of my own jokes; to mock the way I looked before anyone else could. But dance lessons asked me to take my own physicality seriously. Admitting that I cared about how my body moved was so intensely embarrassing that, when asked to improvise, I spent the entire lesson crying in the corner from shame.
Photographer: Stephen Wright
Our teacher at Step Change Studios, Ivana Ostrowski, was hugely supportive. We learned different styles of ballroom dance, which she adapted for each individual student depending on their disability. We ultimately worked out a routine which we performed at the national Design Museum in London as part of an event to celebrate the UN International Day of Persons with Disabilities
After the show, I was surprised to realize that something had changed: I felt proud of our performance. I felt proud of how I moved.
Mass media and society teaches us to equate disability with tragedy, or to view wheelchairs as symbols of pity to which their users are ‘bound’. Yet, in every sense, my wheelchair has become my liberation. 
It allows me a freedom of movement which my legs could never afford.  
South Asian Kuchipudi Dance Festival
Twenty years after I first watched Giselle, and ten years after I thought I’d hung up my dancing shoes for good, I was lucky enough to be invited to participate in Step Change Studios’ professional showcase Fairy Tales, at Sadler’s Wells itself in 2019. Being surrounded by so many professional disabled dancers was fantastic. Here, our wheelchairs were not inconveniences to be hidden, but tools which enabled both disabled and non-disabled dancers to move in new, innovative, beautiful ways. 
We practiced in the studios of prestigious dance schools, wore the Swarovski-encrusted dresses as seen on BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing, and shared the backstage corridors of Sadler’s Wells with professional ballerinas. I even modeled for the show’s promotional poster!  Seeing the hard work, commitment and sincerity our choreographers and volunteers placed on Fairy Tales, and the grace and poise of my fellow dancers, was the permission I needed to take dancing seriously. 
Photographer: Stephen Wright
Recently, I was delighted to take part in the International South Asian Kuchipudi Dance Festival in West London, performing a Latin-Indian fusion piece, which we performed again at a glamorous awards show in Westminster. This time, I felt no shame in explaining what I can and can’t do, and needed no encouragement to hold my head up high. 
After so many years of despising and often neglecting my body, Step Change Studios has helped me to finally give it the credit it deserves. My dancing might not look the way I once dreamed it would look, but it feels like pure joy.
Now I can truly say:  To my six-year-old self: We made it! 
Abigail Brown learned ballet for ten years as a child, and after transitioning to using a wheelchair full-time was keen to take up dancing again. She joined UK-based inclusive dance company Step Change Studios' beginner ballroom dance programme in 2018. In a short space of time Abigail has progressed to perform alongside professional dancers. Abigail is also an aspiring writer. You can follow Step Change Studios at: 
Twitter: @Step_Change
Instagram: @stepchangestudios

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