“Proud Mary”: Glee’s Very Special Sham Disability Pride Anthem
by David Kociemba — Emerson College
April 09, 2010 – 07:27
“It was the scariest number we had done. You don’t know what those chairs can do, and you don’t know what those kids can do in the chairs. So a lot of it was just cross your fingers and pray.” –Glee choreographer Zach Woodlee to The New York Post on the “Proud Mary” wheelchair dance number
As a professional choreographer, it’s Woodlee’s job to know what those chairs can do or get someone who does. He should have known about integrated dance, which crafts distinct movements and kinetics by using dancers with and without physical disabilities. Practiced over the past three decades by more than two dozen dance companies worldwide, this genre includes numbers choreographed by such movement innovators as Bill T. Jones, Joanna Haigood, Victoria Marks, Stephen Petronio and Margaret Jenkins, amongst others. An introduction to this history and clips of performances are easily accessible via general sites like Wikipedia, Google and YouTube, dance troupes’ professional sites or blogs devoted to the subject, such as Wheelchair Dancer. Woodlee had plenty of time to do the research. Once Glee included a wheelchair-using character, a dance sequence like this one was inevitable. Alternatively, Woodlee could have brought in a guest choreographer experienced in integrated dance for the number, using the resources of the global media conglomerate producing and distributing the series. Nor did the production company hire anyone experienced in mobility, access or discrimination issues to tutor the cast, director or writers for this or any other episode. “Wheels” is a classic example of how uninformed creators disable themselves by cutting themselves off from the communities of artists versed in the experiences of disability and its cultures.
To see the opportunity missed by the series creators, watch the two clips—of the AXIS dance company’s performance of “Light Shelter” and Glee’s “Proud Mary” sequence—embedded screen left. In the “Light Shelter” performance, there are dancers with and without assistive technology, suggesting an interest in the beauty produced when both types of movement interact. “Proud Mary” erases any acknowledgment of heterogeneity in favor of a temporary fantasy of equality based on homogeneity. Woodlee’s choreography features lots of wheeling in circles and up and down ramps. (They had to lower the ramps’ incline because the actors lacked the upper body strength of experienced wheelchair-users to get up them.) The dominant pattern is push—move or gesture—push. If the actors weren’t in wheelchairs, audiences would never accept running in circles while gesturing as good show dance choreography. In “Light Shelter”, the choreography treats the assistive technology as a part of the body, which allows for greater complexity. The dancers use the handles for lifts. The wheels aid jumps. There are dips, tilts and spins. One dancer twirls another in the air slowly, chair and all. The choreography is not afraid to use the floor either. The only move that Woodlee draws from the vocabulary of integrated dance is the wheel stomp. Had Glee cast the role of Artie Abrams with an experienced wheelchair-user, rather than Kevin McHale, they might have had a performer physically capable of pulling off some of the dance moves on display at AXIS. Woodlee regards the chair as separate from the body, rather than an extension of it, and suggests that celebrating equality involves the erasure of difference rather than the integration of it. The fact that millions worldwide weren’t given their first exposure to the beauty of an integrated dance sequence limits the series artistically and harms integrated dance companies. (When Glee covers a song, the original sells tens of thousands of copies.)
Perhaps you think that untrained teens providing a passable performance informed by a type of interpretive dance would break the audience’s suspension of disbelief. But Glee plays with the fantasy of amateur excellence every week with its songs. Audiences temporarily repress their knowledge that these kids are not high school amateurs and that these “live” performances are recorded and mastered in the studio. We expect professional performances within the loose constraints of the show’s conceit; indeed, the series has two gold records to its credit. So when they fail to take basic steps to provide a competent integrated dance performance, it suggests ulterior motives. This dance number functions exactly how Sue’s sister with Down’s Syndrome does in this episode: as a narrative prosthesis designed to showcase the goodness of the charity-giver, to prop them up in the face of withering criticism (from Will, from disability organizations and others). It benefits those with cultural power more than any other party. The musical number is a form of oppression masquerading as an affectionate tribute.
When Kevin McHale’s Artie says in this episode, “This isn’t something I can fake,” it has a doubled meaning. The experience of disability for the character isn’t something he can fake because disability is located in social barriers, not individual physical impairments. But McHale is faking the mobility impairment. Woodlee is faking dance choreography informed by disability culture, and badly. Clearly, the creators don’t believe the lines they wrote, because they reinforce those social barriers for actors with mobility impairments and erase disability culture while pretending to celebrate it. “Wheels” reveals that its creators think that there’s nothing very special for mainstream audiences to learn from the experience of those with disabilities in their Very Special Episode.