I have been a wheelchair user for my entire life and a dancer for almost as long. Maybe it was in- part because I danced at my mother's studio and everyone knew me there, but being the only dancer who used a wheelchair never made me feel any different from my teammates. True, I had to sometimes modify the choreography, but I didn't care, because I loved dancing and the people on my competition team were (and still are) some of my closest friends.
During my years as a competitive dancer, I've seen people cry because they were so moved by my dancing (which admittedly I find pretty funny). I've been called both amazing and inspiring, and even been awarded "most inspirational" (or the Kaylee award as my friends jokingly called it). Though I appreciate the recognition, I'm the kind of person who doesn't let my chair hold me back, nor do I think it makes me any different from everyone else, so these comments and reactions always made me feel awkward. This was especially true when I was called "inspirational" after performing a hip hop routine. No amount of recognition will ever compare to the feeling of having two judges at two different competitions go on and on throughout my performances, about how they didn't understand my "prop." They said they didn't see why my "prop" wheelchair was needed.
When I was 18, I did a duo with my friend. In addition to that dance, I was also in two or three group performances. This was my first competition doing multiple dances, and I thought it would be another day of "You're so inspirational". I was wrong. I don't remember our exact scores, but overall, we did really well that year. I remember listening to the judge comment tapes in the following dance class expecting to hear the usual "Smile" or "Point your toes" advice, but this time the judge's comments were different. There was one judge who just kept saying "I don't understand the prop," and telling us that the "prop" was unnecessary, as well as distracting and just didn't belong. After several minutes of hearing about the "prop" in all of my dances, the judge then said something like "Oh my God, I think it's real. I just can't believe it." At that point, my friend/duo partner and I looked at each other and laughed hysterically as we finally realized that this "prop" that the judges didn't understand wasn't a prop at all, it was MY WHEELCHAIR.
Fast forward two years, and once again while listening to judge comments (this time with my entire team) I heard "I'm not sure how this prop really fits in with the choreography." Throughout my years of competitive dancing I faced staring and comments from people who didn't think I belonged, and judges singling me out as an inspiration, but nothing will ever be as memorable as the first time I heard "I don't understand the prop."
*Image is a stock photo and not the actual likeness of the author. Image courtesy Flickr creative commons.