South Africa During the World Cup: The Power of Unintended Secondary Effects

Mixed ability dance troupes, like the San Francisco Bay Area's pioneering AXIS Dance Company, have tremendous impact on audiences. I recall the first performance I attended. Mid-performance one of the dancers stopped about 12 fee directly in front of me. She removed her prosthetic leg. Another dancer came up. He stole it.

She let out a horrible wail writhing on the floor trying to recover it. Then she began to babble and cry almost incoherently. The audience was transfixed by the emotion but never captured the words. The words were in Portuguese.

To be in a crowd of several hundred with someone on the floor pleading with you to help her and realize that you are the only one who understands her words is a jarring experience. More than once I had to willfully remind myself that she was on stage and that giving her my wheelchair was not necessary!

Njabulo S Ndebele had a similarly powerful encounter with mixed ability dance Extra-Ordinary in Baxter Theatre in cape Town. Tackling unflinchingly the social stigma of disability Ndebele takes his insights at being umasked one step further. He applies them to the larger social context which at this point in history is the all-encompassing World Cup. Extra-Ordinary is a collaboration between disabled British actor David Toole and South African choreographer Lucy Hind. Ndebele recounts:

Finally, she calls out to David. When I see him power himself onto the stage in his wheelchair, my personal journey for the evening begins.

I try to ignore that small adult in the wheelchair. "That is an actor, not a disabled man," my practised tolerance tells me. But I really can't. David makes his move. His facial expressions are extraordinary. They capture instantly delicate fleeting moments of mood and thought. A slight twist of facial muscles tells an entire story.

Uncomfortably, I acknowledge this achievement. This disabled man can act! Wow! He has earned my acknowledgement. But why do I feel condescending? Why can't I just acknowledge outstanding acting without rationalisation? It's the disability, stupid! Disabled people are not human enough to be that good. Disturbed, I sit back and watch the performance unfold...

The article is definitely worth reading - Dancing Disability into New Worlds - and at the risk of being a spoiler:

Freed from social stigma or any other inhibitions, the last dance is extraordinarily beautiful. Before me is neither deformity nor normality, only the rules of art that have created a world that had just remade us.

...the last dance reassembled [David's] relationship with Lucy, and internally reassembled with new knowledge an audience torn up with shame, anguish, and anxiety yet eager to be saved and liberated from their pasts. Never again would I feel uncertain in the presence of the disabled. Now, like learning a new language, I have the gift to enter another world.

But there is one more layer to it. Ndebele ties what has been portrayed on stage to the all-encompassing spectacle of the 2010 World Cup.

The fact that this production is so powerful is also related to the unrelenting - some would say fierce - battle that has been waged by disability rights activists and accessibility experts within the disability community in South Africa over the past several years to assure that people with disabilities are fully integrated not only in the audience of the Baxter Theater, but behind, and now on, the stage,  on the buses, and in hotels, and soccer stadiums of this rising country.

When I was invited by various provinces to report on South Africa's readiness for disabled FIFA 2010 fans I was not generous with praise or particularly hopeful. Perhaps if I had known that a British actor and a South African choreographer had a plan or that writer Njabulo Ndebele had such perceptiveness I would have been more hopeful.

Art - and sport - change cultures. Congratulations to all those who are changing it toward greater inclusion.

The full article:

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