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Defying The Boundaries of Dancing: An Interview With Kitty Lunn

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Photo by: Sofia Negron

Since she was a child, Kitty Lunn dreamed of being a dancer.  She was training for years in classical dance with some of the best dancers in the world, including Martha Graham, Agnes de Mille, Jose Limon, and Erik Bruhn. After an accident prior to her Broadway debut that caused Kitty Lunn to break her back, she continues to dance today using innovative wheelchair dance techniques, rooted in classical ballet and modern dance.

After opening the Infinity Dance Theater in 1995, “a non-traditional dance company featuring dancers with disabilities and non-disabled dancers,” Lunn continues to advocate for dancers like herself.

She has expanded the world’s perception beyond the supposed limitations of art and disability.

1) In the disabled community, there is often a lack of consensus regarding terminology, in which certain individuals prefer “person-first” labels versus “identity-first,” i.e. “disabled” vs. “with a disability.” How do you prefer to refer to yourself in terms of your body?

I prefer person-first language, and I refer to myself as a woman ‘over a certain age’ who is a dance artist with a disability.

My disability informs about everything that I do, but it’s not the primary way I define myself. I use a wheelchair, but I’m me.

I lived half of my life as a non-disabled dancer and actress, and now I bring everything that I’ve ever done – good, bad, and indifferent – to the present moment. I’m also a widow now, and that certainly informs this new phase of my life.

2) As the founder of Infinity Dance Theater, what led you to create this company? What are some of your daily responsibilities as artistic director?

After my accident, I knew that I wouldn’t be hired by a mainstream dance company, so if I wanted to work in the professional dance field, I would have to create my own company.

My responsibilities as Infinity Dance Theater’s Artistic Director include planning and teaching classes, choreographing and rehearsing the company, assisting with administrative areas like fundraising and audience development/PR, and serving on dance-related boards and task forces.

3) As a person who has performed as both a non-disabled dancer and as a paraplegic dancer with a wheelchair, how would define the emotional and physical differences between those experiences?

I’ve found that the process remains remarkably the same. The same dance principles still apply, and that’s how I teach.

Years ago, during an interview in Brussels, Belgium, I was asked what I want as a dancer with a disability. I replied,

“I want to command the same respect sitting down that I did standing up.”

When I’m in class with non-disabled dancers, we’re performing the same movement, albeit differently. It’s not that I have invented a new way of moving; rather, I’ve transposed the technique of classical and modern to work for me in my chair and on the floor (and for others in any number of contexts based on one’s disability).

I don’t like to think of it as modifying because it sounds ‘less than.’

I transpose movement as a singer will transpose a piece of music into a different key, but the ‘notes’ are still there in either case.

As a non-disabled dancer, I didn’t have to worry about accessibility issues or instructors/dancers accepting me in class. As a dancer with a disability, I had to become thick-skinned in mainstream classes where I haven’t always been welcome.

I persevere because it’s important for me to continue my training as a dancer and teacher. Hopefully, we’ll reach a time when it won’t be as hard for aspiring dancers with disabilities as it was for me.

Kitty Lunn opened the Infinity Dance Theater in 1995, a non-traditional dance company featuring dancers with disabilities and non-disabled dancers.

Photo by: Sofia Negron

4) In an interview with The Brooklyn Rail, you had referenced a phrase from the famous dancer, Agnes de Mille, who said to you, “You have to learn to dance in the body you have.” Can you expand on the meaning of this quote and its personal significance to you?

This is the body I have now. I don’t define myself by my accident because that’s exactly what it was – an accident – and what I do with my life is a choice. Not only am I disabled, but I’m almost 70 and still performing and choreographing – still breaking new ground – so one has to learn to dance in the body they have at any age.

As a dancer, my body is my instrument, and I must respect that at every stage of life. As an older dancer, you have to learn to work smart as much as you work hard.

I may not have the stamina that I had 15 years ago, but I have acquired artistry that I may not have possessed 15 to 20 years ago. That comes from a lifetime of experience.

5) Do you believe the mainstream dance world should be more inclusive towards dancers with disabilities? How do you think this can be done?

Yes, that’s why I do what I do. Before more dancers with disabilities will become members of mainstream companies, a strong foundation of training is essential – as is the case for any non-disabled dancer.

This fall, Infinity has expanded its tuition-free dance classes into a year-round program for individuals using manual wheelchairs and power chairs at Manhattan’s Gibney dance center. We’re addressing the fact that for too long, dance education opportunities for individuals with disabilities have been limited typically to one-time or short-term outreach/exposure experiences, or classes that are prohibitively expensive.

Infinity is planning a June 2019 concert in collaboration with a company of non-disabled dancers, and the program will illustrate how dancers with disabilities can add a unique texture to choreography.

There are tremendous artistic possibilities in teaching and choreographing for these beautiful bodies that move perhaps a little differently.

By: Michele Kirichanskaya

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Diversity Triumphs as Muslim Woman Suits Up in Latest Marvel Video Game

Ian Wentzlaff

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Kamala Khan bursts onto the screens in Marvel’s latest installment, “Marvel’s Avengers,” as the teen superhero, Ms. Marvel. Her inclusion into the ranks of Marvel’s premier superhero group marks a new chapter in the history of diversity as a Muslim woman headlines a AAA video game.

The meeting of Marvel with successful video game developers, Square Enix and Crystal Dynamics, brought forth lofty expectations for the new game. The development team behind Marvel’s Avengers sought to create a deep, story-driven experience about the titular team without retreading familiar ground from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As a result, they came to a stunning conclusion: a woman named Kamala Khan. 

Ms. Marvel is a vibrant, Muslim superhero of Pakistani descent. Gifted with amazing powers of elasticity, Kamala can contort, stretch, and elongate any part of her body. This unique ability makes for an extremely flexible character. While carrying the emotional weight of the story,  Ms. Marvel’s unique, hero-like abilities make the gaming experience all the more thrilling 

Players will experience the game vicariously through Kamala. The fledgling hero journeys through peril, danger, and hijinks, as she ventures desperately to reassemble everyone’s favorite super team.

Shaun Escayg, the creative director behind “Marvel’s Avengers,” had positive remarks about the heroine’s new arrival to the gaming world, “She’s the glue, the conduit that is drawing all these characters in.” Escayg further explains that featuring Kamala’s evolution from a humble fan of superheroes to a full-time avenger was always the goal of the company.

The decision to allow a Muslim woman to carry a blockbuster game was certainly an uncommon one. The Avengers brand practically guaranteed this game would sell well, so the decision to potentially jeopardize that in order to buck the trend of traditional superhero stories is truly astonishing.

Audiences have grown accustomed to seeing one predominant demographic represented in the superhero genre. What do Iron Man, Hulk, and Thor have in common with their rivals, Superman and Batman? They are all white men. Women and people of color are rarely given the chance to shine in the spotlight of a massive franchise. The Avengers brand decided that it was just about time to break that mold.

One of the reasons to celebrate the release of the project is that it took huge risks. The creators gambled on a relatively unknown character and rewarded audiences with a story that has never been told before.

Players can experience a well-known, action-packed story while simultaneously getting a fresh new perspective on the successful superhero format. Featuring a Muslim woman as the lead, playable character truly exemplifies how the game champions diversity.

Debuting as a comic book character in 2014 before earning her own solo title the following year, Ms. Marvel is indeed no stranger to being the star of a franchise. The series, “Ms. Marvel,” received critical acclaim upon its release, with many citing Kamala’s personal struggles as a Muslim woman fighting to fit into a world dominated by white men as the highlight of the book.

Similar to her role in the groundbreaking comic series, Ms. Marvel embraces her heritage in the new game, modeling her crime-fighting outfit after a traditional Muslim swimming outfit called a burkini.

Zoomed in on an Xbox controller, featuring the green A button, red B, yellow Y, and blue X.
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G. Willow Wilson, the writer behind Kamala’s comic series dissects how the young character upends her readers’ anticipations. “Everybody’s expecting Ms. Marvel,” referring to the blonde woman that previously used that moniker. “A real superhero. With perfect hair and big boots. Not Kamala from Jersey City.” 

Hopefully, this won’t be seen simply as a check in the so-called diversity requirement box for a massive video game publisher—but rather, indicative of superhero stories growing more inclusive. There is a larger audience for superheroes than ever before. With that larger audience comes an appetite for a wider array of stories and characters. 

Marvel, after noticing Kamala Kahn’s rising popularity and increased profitability, recently greenlit a live-action television series starring the Pakistani teen. The creative heads behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe also hinted at the strong possibility of a future film featuring Kamala is on the horizon. 

Marvel certainly seems poised to diversify its costumed heroes on screen. Upcoming projects for the company include a Spider-Man game featuring Miles Morales in lieu of Peter Parker, a female version of Thor starring in an upcoming movie, and of course, the big plans for Ms. Marvel as well.

The game, “Marvel’s Avengers” has been met with mostly positive reviews. While critics can look forward to a steady stream of content headed to the game to patch its flaws, the character-driven story content anchored by Kamala Kahn garnered near-universal praise and requires no such fixing.

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My Catch 22: To Wax or Not to Wax?

Aanandi Murlidharan

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A girl with brown hair, brown eyes, dark tank top and pink lipstick, thoughtful.
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I am a hypocrite. I call myself a feminist by saying that women should be able to do whatever they want with their bodies. I say that women should not have to conform to the beauty standards of society.

They should be free to wear what they want to, when they want to, and how they want to. Yet, the sight of body hair on a woman makes me gag. For nine years, I have been bleaching my mustache, plucking my eyebrows, shaving my underarms, and waxing my legs and arms. 

If there is so much as a patch of hair on my body, I will wear full pants even in the hot, humid summers of New Jersey. If I get waxed, I feel obligated to wear skirts, dresses, short sleeves, and shorts to show off my smooth skin.

On the day that my armpits are shaved, I will raise my hand tall and high. On the day that tiny hairs begin to crow from my underarms, I will make sure to either wear full sleeves or not raise my hand at all. Each time, I tear up as the hot wax touches my skin or the bleach burns my face, it’s an example of my Catch-22. 

If I wax, I feel guilty about succumbing to the internalized misogyny that created these beauty standards. If I don’t wax, I feel unclean and self-conscious of my body hair. Either way I am in a state of discomfort.

But why do I take it? Why have I been trying to be completely hairless for the past nine years? Why do I bear the horrific pain of getting my hair ripped out from my hair follicle? Why do I bear the burden of my Catch-22? To be quite honest, I don’t know. Perhaps, it is because I am a South Asian woman. South Asian women are a group of people who are naturally hairy, but have conditioned generations of South Asian women to get rid of all the hair on their body.

During my trips to India, I am shocked by the sheer number of hair removal products. There are ten different kinds of bleach, five different types of wax, and three different types of laser hair removal treatments. Each product claims to remove hair in the most efficient way possible. Waxing and threading services are a staple in a beauty parlor and are as prevalent as gas stations in Route 1. 

Growing up, I was surrounded by South Asian women who were obsessed with body hair removal. I grew up in Edison, New Jersey, a town that is known as “brown town.” Even comedian, Hassan Minhaj said that “they [Cal Tech] basically dump Fremont, California and Edison, New Jersey into one school and said go hang out with your cousins.”

My friends and I would exchange numbers of the best waxers in town or lend each other epilators on the days where the salons were closed. We cried over being teased for our “fuzzy” bodies and wispy mustaches.

Even in the United States, the best waxing and threading parlors are run by South Asian women. However, the main reason I feel this way might be because for a large amount of my life I have been okay with the idea of conforming to standards placed on me.

My conformity exists not only with the beauty standards enforced on me, but also with my relationship with my parents.

In my first-year college writing seminar, my professor gave us an example of one of his students, who wrote a heartwarming essay about how parents shaped him into the person he is today. While reading his essay, my professor came across the word “infulcated.”

My professor said he asked this student why he chose this word. Did he mean inculcated, which, according to Merriam Webster, means to instill an attitude, idea, or habit by persistent instruction?

Or was there an underlying meaning to the “fu”? Then the student had an epiphany. He realized that the “fu” did have an underlying meaning. The “fu” was, in fact, a message to his parents. “F**k them for shoving their values down my throat, and not giving me the opportunity to think for myself.”

My professor then mentioned that while this student loved his childhood, he realized that his parents’ values took over his entire identity and way of thinking.  This led the student to make a complete 180-degree shift in his personality and way of life. Suddenly, all that his parents ever said or would say to him seemed like a “load of bullsh*t,” making him want to do everything in his power to defy their authority over him. 

When I heard this story, I honestly thought this student was dead wrong. While I do agree that we should think for ourselves, I also believe that our parents are the backbone of our existence and shape us to be the people we are today. Perhaps, it is because I am not only an overtly filial person, but because of my South Asian culture that respects our elders.

We touch the feet of our elders when we greet them. We receive their blessings before important events such as taking an exam or going off to college. We even live in joint households, where our parents reside as the matriarch and patriarch. There are definitely certain ideas and issues I have that do not match up with my parents.

My opinions on gender roles and sexuality do not always line up with my parents. However, I value their general advice and their life experiences. If push comes to shove, I am willing to swallow my pride and accept certain situations regardless of whether they are physically present in my life or not.

Once again, I am okay with conforming with societal standards and expectations. In this case, the expectation is filial piety. 

Coming to Bryn Mawr, there were more societal standards placed upon me. Bryn Mawr College probably one of the most liberal colleges in the country. A family friend of mine from Swarthmore College described it as a place “where all the girls are liberal hippies.”

Being a women’s college, many women feel like it is a safe space to showcase the autonomy they have over their bodies. As a result, I’ve seen many women on campus flaunting their underarms with full bushels of armpit hair, their legs with long prickly, unshaven hair, and their upper lips with dark wispy mustaches. To them, their body hair gives them a sense of autonomy, and a way to own their femininity. 

Body hair is not the only instance of how Bryn Mawr students showcase their autonomy. During a club meeting, one of my fellow first years and I were having a conversation about college life and our overall experience in Bryn Mawr.

Out of the blue, she mentioned that she got a tattoo on her leg. She lifted her pant leg to show the outline of a pretty pink flower on her leg. “My mom completely freaked out when she saw this, but what’s she gonna do? I’m eighteen years old and living in college by myself.”

At first, I thought to myself: Wow I am such a hypocrite.  These women are trying to break the hold society has over them. They are trying to break the mold of conformity, something I have always wanted to do. But then why do I feel uncomfortable? Why does it feel like wrong? Am I a conformist?

Then I realized something. Everyone, including my professor’s student, the girl from my club, Bryn Mawr students, and me, is conforming. Everyone is trapped by conformity regardless of race, cultural background, age, sexuality, gender identity, religion, or socioeconomic background.

Almost everyone at Bryn Mawr or just college, in general, is trying to become the opposite of what they were in high school. They try and challenge the social norms that were placed them growing up in by getting a tattoo, a navel piercing, not shaving, or drinking their weight in vodka, but people seem just as trapped in the social norms of culture as I am.

They say that they are free of society’s rigid chains. But are they really? Freedom is the ability to choose who you want to be. But are the people around me genuinely free if they are all conforming to the idea of not conforming? 

As I was going over my first draft of this paper with my professor, he mentioned that a rebel is, to some extent, defined by what they rebel against. My professor’s student, who felt as if he was completely defined by his parents’ values by rebelling against them in the hope of finding his own identity, in fact, did the opposite. His identity was still defined by his parents. Perhaps, in a different way but still defined by them. 

I always felt I was the one conforming to society, and everyone else was being their own individual self. But in reality Bryn Mawr’s beauty standard of “au natural” and my South Asian culture’s need to have smooth skin or the rebelling against my parents both force people to conform to some kind of societal standard even if they claim to be liberating themselves from the constraints of the majority’s rules.

While it may seem like we are trying to rebel from societal norms such as our parent’s influence or the stigma of body hair, we are, in fact, letting it trap us even further. Because we are letting the very thing that we are trying so hard not to let control us and our life. 

But how do we escape this trap of conformity? This trap of being defined by the very thing we are trying to run away from?

To be quite honest, I do not know. At this moment in my life, conformity also feels like a Catch-22. If we follow societal standards, expectations, and norms, we succumb to conformity. But if we decide to go against those societal norms by rebelling, we are also conforming to the concept of rebellion and being defined by the very thing we are trying to rebel against.

Just like Yossarian in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 unsuccessfully tries to escape from war, we too end up stuck in the same situation we fought so hard to escape. So does freedom exist? Can we ever have the freedom to do what we want and go against the societal expectations and social norms placed upon us? Ask me in four years. Maybe I’ll have an answer by then. 

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Never Have I Ever May Not Represent My Brown Experience, But It Represents The Brown Experience of Others

Aanandi Murlidharan

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Three of the main South Asian characters of the Netflix series Never Have I Ever standing in front of a orange/pink/purple screen.

Turning on the TV growing up, I rarely saw anyone who looked like me. When dressing up as Disney princesses, my friends and I used to fight over Princess Jasmine because her olive skin and dark hair best resembled us. Flash forward a few years later, and my representation was only mildly upgraded.

Phineas and Ferb gave me the nerdy, bullied Baljeet with his stereotypically thick Indian accent. Jessie gave me Ravi, another nerdy, bullied brown kid. He was also the only one with a stereotypical accent despite all his siblings being adopted. Years past and the media continued to feed me inaccurate representations of my culture and myself. 

When Mindy Kailing’s Never Have I Ever was first announced, I was through the roof. I was finally ready for an experience that encompassed my identity as an Indian-American teenager. However, while I was watching the show, I felt that certain aspects of my brown experience were perpetuated incorrectly.

There were times where I could not understand Devi or her mother’s actions. I couldn’t identify with the way Devi felt about her culture. 

While Never Have I Ever doesn’t entirely encompass my brown experience, it does succeed to encompass the brown experience of others in five different ways.

1. “Devi, make sure to favor your left side.” 

I was taken aback the first time I heard this line. I found it shocking how Nalani, Devi’s own mother, could say something so hurtful regarding her daughter’s physical appearance. My brown mother has never commented on my physical appearance in such a manner.

However, while I may not have experienced this personally, emphasis on physical appearance is still a pressing issue within the brown community.

In the South Asian community, colorism is a rampant issue. Being a light-skinned Indian myself, I have often been praised for how “fair” and “beautiful” I look. However, many of my dark-skinned friends have struggled with being perceived as beautiful by their community. Sometimes even by their own family.

They are often told that they are “undesirable” or “dirty” due to the color of their skin. They are told to drink less tea, stay in the shade, or drink lemon juice to make themselves lighter. Even Indian companies hire famous Bollywood actors to promote face-lighting products. 

Even within the show, Kailing subtly draws attention to this stigma within Indian society. In the very same scene, Nalani tells Kamala, Devi’s light-skinned cousin, that “all her sides are equally beautiful.” Immediately after telling Devi, who is darker-skinned, the opposite. 

2. “I thought I came to America for the education, but my favorite part is the ice cream. There are so many flavors here. Way more than pistachio.”

I found this line from Prashant to be the most problematic line in the entire show due to the sheer inaccuracy of the statement. Historically, India has always been known as the world’s flavor and spice hub.

Growing up, I would spend many summers at my grandparent’s house in New Delhi. My grandfather’s favorite pass-time was taking my sister and me to the market to buy ice cream. The shopkeeper would fill our baskets with choco bars, lychee bars, cola pop, and my personal favorite, Mango Duet.

To this day, I still have barely scratched the surface of all of the flavors posted on the shopkeeper’s wall. 

Prashant’s statement may not be an accurate representation of the amenities offered in India, but it does represent the thought process of many new brown immigrants. A large part of the immigrant experience is comparing the resources and opportunities of your homeland with the country in which you just arrived.

Some brown immigrant families might praise the “sizes of the bags of chips” or the “cleanliness” of American streets. Conversely, some may choose to focus on how there is “less empathy” or “less of a community feel” in the United States as compared to India. 

3. “Yes, you look like a careerist western woman, which you obviously are, but they don’t need to know that yet. Kamala, his family wants to see that you can cook, clean, and cater to all their son’s needs.” 

Nalani said this statement to Kamala while preparing for the first step in Kamala’s arranged marriage process, a video call with her Prashant, her prospective suitor’s parents. The purpose of the video call was so that Prashant’s parents could see whether Kamala met the requirements for a potential match.

After this conversation, Nalani told Kamla to change from her “careerist western woman outfit” to the traditional Indian sari. I found it difficult to believe that Prashant’s parents would not be interested in the fact that Kamala is a biologist pursuing her Ph.D. in Caltech.

Growing up, education was always considered something that was invaluable in the South Asian community. Academic achievements, such as entering a prestigious college, were always talked about (sometimes a little too much) regardless of gender.

However, I realized it did represent the deep-rooted sexism and general patriarchy that many brown women face in the South Asian community. In many South Asian families, there is also a very clear double standard between women and their brothers, fathers, and husbands.

A man is lauded for working long hours and praised for his prestigious job, while many women are ostracized for doing the same. They are encouraged to leave their job to take care of their family or perfectly manage both. If a woman fails to do any of the following, she is seen as a failure.

Never Have I Ever touched on this aspect of a brown experience that often goes unnoticed within the community through this interaction. 

4. “If you’d like to go to Elenor or Fabiola’s house to do something fun like practice PSATs, you have my permission.” 

At first glance, this line truly upset me. I felt as if it perpetuated the stereotype of the “Asian tiger mom,” who only cared about grades and could not understand any other use of their time.

I felt anger rising in me because it made it seem as if all brown parents fell into this category when, in fact, when my parents were the opposite. My parents had always encouraged me to follow my passions. They unconditionally supported me and trusted me to find my own path. 

In frustration, I sent a message to one of my close brown friends, venting about the problematic nature of this line. “I felt that she wasn’t strict enough,” replied my friend. “I guess it’s because I grew up with a real tiger mom.” 

Many Indian kids do have parents who fall into the tiger parent category. However, this is not necessarily a bad thing. It is because they want the best for their child’s future. The most tangible, almost guaranteed path to this is through academic and professional success.

In many Asian countries, the education system is set up to be exam based. To enter the top programs and colleges, you would have to score well on a series of exams.

Portraying this aspect of Devi’s mother’s personality was not in fact, perpetuating into a stereotype, but it was portraying a brown experience that many Indian American children experience. As tough as Nalani was on Devi, she loved her just as much. 

5. “Aunties are older Indian ladies, who have no blood relationship to you, but are allowed to make, but are allowed to have opinions about your life and all your shortcomings. You have to be nice to them because you’re Indian.” 

I would be completely lying if I said that this quote doesn’t reflect my brown experience. I have definitely faced my fair share of aunties, who have also made passive-aggressive comments about my life and shortcomings.

On the other hand, I was also lucky enough to meet aunties, who have shown me great warmth and compassion. Since most of my family is in India, these aunties became my family in the United States. They have supported my family and me when we have most needed it.

However, I know that not every brown kid is fortunate enough to have adults outside of their immediate families with whom they experience a genuine connection. Too often, brown kids are trapped in communities and social circles built upon envy, pride, and ambition.

The competitive nature of adults in these communities can make every interaction with an adult feel like an assessment or judgment for these kids. This causes many brown kids to seek out ways to detach themselves from and escape their brown communities. Thus, preventing them from fully accepting and embracing their heritage, like Devi. 

Never Have I Ever may not represent the entirety of my brown experience, but it does represent the brown experience of others. Representation is not a bathing suit from a shopping channel that claims to be one size fits all. It is not possible for a single show to represent the vast experiences of every brown person that is part of the South Asian diaspora.

However, what it does do is pave the way for more stories centering on the lives of South Asian Americans. Never Have I Ever is the first show to feature a brown teenager growing up in the United States and is top-ranked on Netflix. It, therefore, proves to Western mainstream media that South Asians can be the main character.

They can move out of supporting roles like Baljeet or Ravi that have no function other than for comic relief. This show may not represent your brown experience or my brown experience, but it paves the way for a multitude of brown experiences to be told in the future. 

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