• No products in the basket.
cart chevron-down close-disc

Dancing with
Alice Sheppard

On dance as a channel to commune with the body—even when it hurts.
Words by Louise Bruton. Photography by Ted Belton. Hair & Makeup by Avery Golson.

  • Arts & Culture
  • Issue 47

On dance as a channel to commune with the body—even when it hurts.
Words by Louise Bruton. Photography by Ted Belton. Hair & Makeup by Avery Golson.

Alice Sheppard fell into dance on a dare. Spurred on by a disabled dancer she met at a conference, the former English and comparative literature lecturer took her first lesson in 2004. Studying ballet, modern dance and wheelchair technique under the disability activist Kitty Lunn of Infinity Dance Theater, she became a touring member of the AXIS Dance Company within three years. By 2012, Sheppard was performing as an independent artist with Ballet Cymru, GDance and Full Radius Dance, among others, but soon she would take on a challenge of her own. Having founded the disability arts ensemble Kinetic Light in 2016, Sheppard’s vision as artistic director is to create work that connects with and draws from disability culture. Splitting her time between New York and San Francisco, two contrasting cities she considers home, the British choreographer and dancer says she goes “where the work is.”  

As two wheelchair users, Sheppard and I share a vantage point, and this familiarity breeds a mutual fondness. In our conversation around artistic expression and care, we laugh, we scrutinize and we dig deep. Sheppard expertly navigates the subtext of anything that’s asked of her as a disabled artist—indeed, of anything that’s asked of disabled people, such as when I ask how dance contributes to her well-being. “The question that people are actually wanting to know when they ask that question is: How does dance make my body better with regard to disability?” This isn’t a question she’s interested in answering. 

Although she rolls her eyes at wellness culture as commodified by celebrities, Sheppard is keen to talk about the ways in which the well-being of disabled people depends on our environment, even if it’s one that we have to create for ourselves. 

Louise Bruton: Can you remember the first time you connected with dance?

Alice Sheppard: Shortly—but not immediately—after becoming disabled,  I made the annual pilgrimage with the same group of friends to The Nutcracker. Soon after the beginning of act two, I just lost it. Like nothing on earth—tears just coming and coming. It was all very awkward. I think people likely thought of it as a disability thing, as me crying because I could not do what I was seeing. I didn’t experience it that way. Or, at least, I didn’t actively experience it that way. To this day, I’m not sure what set me off. 

LB: What is your relationship with wellness culture?

AS: I want to separate what I think contemporary wellness culture is from the disability world. A lot of non disabled people struggle with the idea that disability is not sickness, but within the disability movement, there are also a ton of sick and chronically ill disabled people. And all of those struggles and fights to be seen in the world, I think, are separate from this contemporary focus on wellness, which is New Age spiritualism blended with fitness, blended with whatever diet. 


The captions for this feature have been written as image descriptions.

Alice Sheppard, a multiracial Black woman with curly blonde hair, is photographed in black and white in an empty studio. She is pictured in profile, diving toward the ground while dancing in her wheelchair. Her arms are extended behind her and she is holding crutches.

LB: How would you feel if dance was taken away from you tomorrow?

AS: I would be devastated, but I would survive. I’m endlessly fascinated by the body and my experience of it. We live in these things and they do stuff and they feel stuff and they respond or don’t respond. That relationship with the body is incredible. Dance has shown me how to pay attention to it. If I’m not performing choreographed movements on stage, I’m still interpreting the movement in the streets and I’m still feeling the world through my body—we all do. Even if we took away the lights and the stage and formal training of it all, the body doesn’t go away.

LB: Was there ever a point in your life where you didn’t listen to your body?

AS: I’m always not listening to my body! As dancers, we’re supposed to simultaneously listen to our bodies at every moment and then ignore the responses. “It hurts!” Keep going. “I’m tired!” Keep going. I have watched the mainstream dance world wrestle with that. With Kinetic Light, I hope to create space where we can do incredibly beautiful work in body-sustainable ways.

LB: How do you create an environment where you can push yourself as a dancer, but also take care?

AS: I think that’s a fundamental problem [for professional dancers] and, in particular, for disabled dancers. You don’t have to push your body to its limits. That’s not what dancing is. Let’s step outside that frame and think about dance as the expression of the body. You don’t have to push it to its limits, you don’t have to do anything with it. It’s not even about controlling your body—because disabled folks know that control. Kinetic Light does physically demanding work, but it’s about spending time with your body prior to rehearsal. The trick is to build the body. Not in terms of muscular strength, but to explore and know your body so you can train it. Understanding where your body is, understanding what it likes to do. Then doing the support work to strengthen and care for it as it’s doing what you want it to do. For some people, support and care are going to mean hours in the gym. For others, support and care look like going to two or three dance classes and really investing in mainstream dance education. For others it is none of the above.

LB: All members of Kinetic Light are disabled artists. As you navigate the body and explore themes of disability, race and queerness in your collaborative work, how do you make sure that everybody on the team is heard?

AS: We are a small team and these collaborators have really strong artistic voices. One of the metaphors we use is “This is like a bunch of wild horses.” I am learning how to usher the horses in one direction. Laurel [Lawson; dancer/technology lead/choreographic collaborator], Jerron [Herman; dancer/choreographic collaborator] and Michael [Maag; scenographer] are incredible artists. So the question here is what serves the work? How is that best expressed? The non disabled world tends to expect medical stories or stories of personal hardship as the only kind of work disabled people make.  But it isn’t. There is tremendous freedom in being able to choose what you stage. You don’t always have to be on stage performing somebody else’s expectation of your own disability, race or queer trauma.  

LB: What’s your showtime self-care routine?

AS: I have a longstanding practice, so it’s not disconnected from the way I live. There’s not just a certain diet that appears because suddenly there’s a show. It’s because there is a practice of training, eating, working and sleeping in these ways.      

LB: Do you need to decompress after a show?

AS: It takes a long time to come down from a performance. And then after the touring run, there’s a big crash.

LB: What does that crash look like?

AS: I have learned to care for myself; to care for my body at the end of the show so that I can do tomorrow’s show. We’re not staying out until one o’clock in the morning and partying, because we have got to go home and take care. I ice everything, stretch it out, heat pad it up and have a proper meal, because I’m not eating solid meals before the show. There’s also a recognition that the energy postshow does not stop just because the curtain has closed. 

LB: Do you try to ease the adrenaline out?

AS: You don’t want to maintain adrenaline all night, because you won’t sleep. Part of it is to let the body process it and come down from the show at its own pace. And then you learn to ride the feelings that come with that. Don’t jam a lot of sugar or alcohol into your body postshow. Learn how to ride the coming down and who to be with for postshow vulnerability. 

LB: Here’s something I have always wanted to ask a professional dancer: Are your friends intimidated to go out dancing
with you?

AS: Totally! But that was before I was a disabled dancer. I loved going out to dance. I would dance for hours on end, getting wilder and wilder by the hour. It was all about the movement—faster, higher, sexier, sweatier. I would lose track of who I was; it seemed like I could be anyone or anything. Now, I save my fun dancing for parties, friends or moments in the street. Clubs are too much. Even if the club is accessible, there’s not enough floor space to really let go; people are always bumping into me or spilling their drinks in my face. 

LB: When you dance for fun, what do you dance to?

AS: This is the dance equivalent of singing in the shower, yes? Anything ’80s! What do professional singers sing in the shower, I wonder?

Sheppard sits on her feet, her arms and crutches extended upward. The image is blurred.

Sheppard sits on her feet, her arms and crutches extended upward. The image is blurred.


This story is from Kinfolk Issue Forty-Seven

Buy Now

Kinfolk.com uses cookies to personalize and deliver appropriate content, analyze website traffic and display advertising. Visit our cookie policy to learn more. By clicking "Accept" you agree to our terms and may continue to use Kinfolk.com.