Dancing to Inclusion

Sarah's photo wheelchair

They didn’t know where it would take them.

A physicist, Sarah Demers (full disclosure – my daughter) and a dancer, Emily Coates, decided they would create and offer a new course at Yale University – The Physics of Dance. In its initial offering it broke records as to the number of students vying for inclusion in the 20 or so slots available. Each was determined not to compromise their field. The physics would be demanding; the dance would be taxing. Students would have to work, think, move, learn, and hopefully enjoy themselves along the way.

They didn’t know it would lead to a book, a TEDx talk, a presentation at the Guggenheim, and opportunities to meet and work with fascinating people in their respective fields. They knew they were exploring new ways to think about the power of collaboration. It would be simplest for each of us to think that our own disciplines were asking the most interesting questions about the universe, says Sarah Demers, using methods that were best tuned to give us the answers. I’m reticent to put words in another person’s mouth; but I think she was pointing to a truth that describes all of us: so often there is a bias right from the beginning of our work, the choosing of a paradigm (to channel Thomas Kuhn) that is most inclined to get us the results we are looking for. In their collaboration, Coates and Demers were discovering a third truth – that the whole of their learning is greater than the sum of their two disciplines.

And then she rolled into their lives.

A young, bright woman who had heard about the class and decided she wanted “in”. It presented the scholars with a dilemma: Could a person who can’t walk and is dependent upon a wheel chair to get around fully participate in a “Physics of Dance” class? What impact would her presence have on other students? How would it affect the dance part of the curriculum? It came down to the question: Given her interest, that she is very bright, and that she is determined, do we let her into the class?

Women. Native people. Immigrants. People of color. LGBTQ persons. The folks who can’t walk, who don’t hear or see the way most people do, do they have the right of inclusion?

Sarah spoke to me about this as enrollment for the class was taking place last fall. Dad, she said, we have an interesting dilemma! Interesting indeed. Developing a curriculum is hard work, time consuming; but more than that, we make certain assumptions about the “methods that are best tuned to give us the answers.” Then, out of the blue, someone rolls into our lives and tells us they want what, to us, it looks like they can’t have. Do we have a responsibility to ensure they have access to their unusual – and perhaps unreasonable demands?

They let her in. And, to the unfolding truth that collaboration yields hidden insight, that the risk of being “together” creates potential – often unforeseen – for wholeness, that crowds have amazing power to yield and individuals have equally amazing courage making it possible for them to rise above what threatens to hold them down, the young woman in the wheel chair danced. That’s her in the photo (used with permission from the photographer).

She danced into the class, into the work and learning and joy of it all. It might not be fair; it is often painful; it can even be dangerous. But sometimes – often times – It’s the people who really have had the most taken away who also have the most to gain; and they are the ones who have to extend themselves, even impose themselves onto situations where so many of us are blinded by our privilege.

Let’s pray that when such people as the young woman in the wheel chair muster the courage to extend their hand to us we will have the grace and foresight to take it, to dance with them and to find the places where collaboration brings us to new heights of community, compassion, and yes … even love for each other.

Mark Demers

Want to talk about sex, politics, spirituality? So do I. I grew up in a religious home in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Our country was reeling from assassinations and the devastation of the Viet Nam War. Looking for something beautiful, I got a degree in music, married the love of my life and had children. Looking for God, I then went to seminary. Looking for something that might transform the world, I became a local church pastor. Now, I’m always looking for people who want to talk about important things. I cherish conversations with emerging leaders, people who are antsy to try an idea they believe would change the world for the better. I’d would love to hear from you.