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.
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.
A New Home for Asian American Representation in Hollywood
After the onslaught of negative reactions to Mulan (2020), Disney’s recent film announcements offer new hope for Asian representation in the entertainment industry.
Here are a few movies that offer a new home for Asian American representation in film.
Mulan in Crisis
Over quarantine, Disney+ users dreamed about the promise of greater authenticity and Chinese representation in the live-action of Mulan.
The film had an aggressive campaign of staying true to the original ballad of Mulan, and established a more serious approach than its animated companion.
Soon after its release, however, audiences were sorely met with lackluster characterization and collapsing themes of Asian female empowerment.
In addition to the outrage concerning main actress Yifei Liu’s support of Hong Kong police, Mulan (2020) suffered from its generalization of Chinese history and glorification of outdated values.
An overwhelming backlash, in this case, was inevitable. The Asian American community responded with a plethora of media criticizing Disney’s failures with Mulan.
As Disney enters a new era in the streaming industry, however, there has been some hope for growth in its relationship with Asian representation.
Raya the First
Though some have pointed out its stylistic similarity to Avatar: The Last Airbender, many others have applauded Raya and the Last Dragon for its introduction of Southeast Asian representation into the animated sphere.
The new film portrays Raya, a fictional Southeast Asian warrior princess, who must search for the last dragon in order to save her world.
Throughout its trailer, Raya and the Last Dragon hints at a variety of Southeast Asian cultures.
While the ability to openly point out such specific cultural moments paves an optimistic path, another question arises in Disney’s choice for a film that works to “blend Southeast Asian cultures” rather a distinct country.
This particularly speaks to the ways in which Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander communities are too often consolidated as one culture.
Whereas films like Mulan enjoy the cultural specificity of being Chinese, Moana and now Raya and the Last Dragon must settle for a more generic representation of being “Southeast Asian” or “Pacific Islander,” as opposed to Filipino or Tongan.
This also comes with the replacement of half-Filipina Cassie Steele with Vietnamese Kelly Marie Tran.
While Raya and the Last Dragon has been largely recognized for its distinctive Filipino references, the film continues to largely err on the side of mixing (and potentially confusing) a variety of Southeast Asian creatives.
In the midst of such a struggle, however, Raya and the Last Dragon nevertheless represents the beginning of Southeast Asian involvement in the film industry, with hopes for more to come.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of Yellow Peril
Marvel’s latest Shang-Chi: The Legend of the Ten Rings also provides a new avenue for Asian representation, especially in the superhero realm.
Simu Liu, set to play Shang-Chi, has been a longtime favorite in the Asian American film industry.
From acting in short films with Wong Fu Productions to playing the sweet but arrogant Jung on Kim’s Convenience, Liu is a familiar face in the Asian American community and reflects their desire for diversity on camera.
However, there is hesitation about rehashing the damaging Asian stereotypes from the original Shang-Chi comics. Inspired by the age of martial arts films, Shang-Chi echoes the era of Fu Manchu and Yellow Peril, when Asians were essentially characterized as purely evil.
Fu Manchu represented the culmination of America’s anti-Asian, anti-immigrant anxieties and fears. In the comics, Shang-Chi is the son of Fu Manchu and equips his martial arts to destroy his father.
Such a relationship spoke to the utilization of the “best” parts of Asian culture (a.k.a martial arts) to take down the “worst” parts (acting or looking “too Asian”).
This divisiveness ultimately denounces an Asian identity, uplifting only that which is “best” in the eyes of others.
Knowing this history, Shang-Chi holds the potential to backslide in the same ways that Mulan (2020) did, by focusing too much on a presumed perspective of “authenticity.”
In the making of Shang-Chi, Disney must pull from contemporary Asian America, rather than its past.
As Simu Liu has pointed out, however, there is hope! Both Shang-Chi: The Legend of the Ten Rings and Raya and the Last Dragon have released their massive inclusion of a largely Asian and Asian American cast and creative team.
This means that, in contrast to Mulan’s implementation of solely Asian actors, these two new films will be written and creatively produced by the same people it seeks to represent. In this way, Disney is truly learning from its failure with the live-action Mulan (2020).
Though there has been some early criticism for the next two films, a positive anticipation flourishes in Disney’s changes for greater Asian representation in film and media.
Different Ways to celebrate Christmas-Comparing Christmas Traditions Across the Globe
Christmas caroling, gingerbread houses, eggnog and candy canes are an indication that the holiday season is upon us. In the U.S. and certain other countries, we have traditions like setting out milk and cookies for Santa, lining our mantels with stockings, and hanging wreaths and bright lights outside. But many other countries around the world have their own unique traditions to celebrate this most wonderful time of the year. Let’s take a look at some of the different ways other cultures embrace the magic of Christmas.
Region of Puerto Rico
In Puerto Rico, Christmas is an extravagant, go-all-out type of holiday. Christmas celebrations start the day after Thanksgiving and last until the beginning of January. An important holiday tradition is caroling, referred to as a parranda, meaning the gift of music. The parranda isn’t your average Christmas caroling excursion; there are maracas, guitars and tamboras involved, making it all the more festive. In many cities, fireworks are set off each night in celebration. Some special holiday foods in Puerto Rico include lechón asado (a pork dish), tembleque (coconut pudding), and coquito (a coconut-rum drink).
Christmas is a holiday that is typically associated with winter. But in Australia, Christmas takes place in the summer season, swapping snowmen for sandmen. The beach is a very popular destination on Christmas day, filled with live music, barbeques, and decorated trees in the sand. If you’re lucky, you may even see Santa Claus, better known as Father Christmas in Australia, surfing the waves. Australians also celebrate the holiday season by gathering in large groups to sing Christmas carols with candles in hand. This tradition is known as ‘Carols by Candlelight.’
Rovaniemi, located in Lapland, Finland, is a city noted for its holiday spirit. In fact, Rovaniemi is the official hometown of Santa Claus. Santa’s post office (it’s a real post office) is open year-round, collecting letters from thousands of children. The subpolar climate of Rovaniemi makes the city a winter wonderland for several months. Christmas theme parks filled with reindeer sleigh rides and Santa and his elves make for a wonderful holiday experience.
In Mexico, the Las Posadas celebration begins on December 16th and ends on Christmas Eve. Communities dress up and reenact Joseph and Mary’s journey to Bethlehem in search of shelter. There’s music, parties, and holiday foods such as buñuelos, a dessert made of fried dough and topped with cinnamon sugar or syrup. On Christmas Eve, the party culminates with the breaking of piñatas.
Germany has a rich history of Christmas traditions, some more terrifying than others. In Germany and some other European countries, the Krampus, an evil demon-goat creature, is rumored to be Santa’s evil relative. Krampus punishes children who misbehave, and if you’re in Germany, you may see people dressed up as Krampus wandering through the streets and scaring bystanders. On a happier note, Christmas markets and holiday shopping are all the rage in Germany. In the city of Nuremberg, Christkindlesmarkt is a famously large Christmas market, attracting millions of visitors each year. Famous holiday foods at this market include gingerbread, bratwursts, and fruitcake.
Although only a small fraction of the population of Japan is Christian, the spirit of Christmas is still in the air. In Japan, millions of families celebrate Christmas with a special tradition: a chicken dinner, typically from KFC. Santa Claus has been traded in for Colonel Sanders. In some ways, Christmas in Japan is celebrated in the same way that we celebrate Valentine’s Day. Rather than spending Christmas day with family, couples go out for romantic dinners.
In Amsterdam, Santa Claus is not the only one to deliver presents — Sinterklaas, a Santa-like Nordic figure, also distributes gifts to children. Sinterklass sails from Spain over to the Netherlands to deliver presents on December 5. Santa then arrives on Christmas day to fill childrens’ shoes with gifts. Another important Christmas tradition in the Netherlands is gourmetten, a big dinner where meats and vegetables are grilled at the table, and underneath the grill or hot plate, tiny pans filled with sauces and cheeses are broiled. These dinners somewhat resemble an indoor barbeque.
In Iceland, the Yule Lads, 13 mischievous troll-like figures, deliver gifts to children or give them potatoes if they have been naughty that year. Starting on December 12th, a different lad visits each night leading up to Christmas. Children leave their shoes out on windowsills in anticipation of the Yule Lads’ visits. Grýla, the mother of the Yule Lads, is a scary troll rumored to eat misbehaving children.
While many Christmas celebrations and family traditions are on hold due to Covid, it’s always nice to reminisce on the pre-Covid holiday seasons, as we hope to resume the celebrations next year.
Hanukkah: 8 Things You Might Not Know About the Eight Nights
It’s finally the holiday season here in the US, and all the signs are upon us. Christmas music is playing in most public spaces on the rare occasions we leave our homes, decorations and Christmas trees are going up in private and public spaces, and anticipation of that one magical night is high. Or, it is if you’re Christian.
Jewish people living in the United States, while the world around them gears up for Christmas, celebrate Hanukkah while simultaneously weathering the yearly bombardment of questions and assumptions about what the holiday is like.
There are a lot of misconceptions about what Hanukkah is actually like from people outside the Jewish community, so to help with that confusion, here’s a list of common mistakes people make about how to celebrate Hanukkah, and some general fun facts about a common Jewish holiday.
1. It’s Not “Jewish Christmas”
This is likely self-explanatory, but it’s important to cover. Because of its closeness to Christmas during the year, Hanukkah has become perceived as the “Jewish Christmas”, a holiday with equivalent importance to Christmas, which is not true at all. Christmas is one of the most important holidays in the Christian tradition, commemorating the birth of Jesus. Hanukkah is not on par with that importance.
2. It’s Actually a Minor Holiday
This is the big one that trips non-Jewish people up a lot: Hanukkah is not a big deal at all for Jewish people. For Jews, all the important holidays are tied directly to holy or important days, like Rosh Hashanah, which celebrates the Jewish New Year; and Yom Kippur, which is a day of mourning and remembrance. Hanukkah has no associated holiness to it, making it a very minor event in the Jewish Calendar.
3. Hanukkah is About a Rebellion and a Miracle
Part of the reason why Hanukkah is actually not very important is that the story it commemorates is not part of important Jewish traditions like The Torah. Hanukkah celebrates the rebellion and reclamation of Jewish land and temples by a band of rebels known as the Maccabees. Once the rebellion succeeded and the temple was reclaimed, the Jewish people wanted to relight the menorah (that branching candle holder that’s associated with Hanukkah) inside to reconsecrate the temple, but all the special oil they burned in the menorah was destroyed. They only found a tiny jar which held barely enough oil to last a night. Amazingly though, the small amount of oil burned for eight days and eight nights, giving the Jewish people time to make more oil. This is the miracle of Hanukkah, and why Jews celebrate by lighting Hanukkiah for eight nights. Pretty interesting, huh?
4. There Aren’t Christmas Levels of Gifts
This isn’t true for all families, but for the most part, Hanukkah is a more low-key affair than Christmas. Most Jewish people give smaller gifts across the whole of the eight nights, with maybe a few larger items in there, but not an overflow of gifts every night.
5. Shockingly Enough, Gift Giving Isn’t Even Traditional
This might be surprising even to Jewish-Americans, but gift giving during Hanukkah is not actually traditional! There is no significance to gift giving like there is to other parts of the Hanukkah tradition, and in fact, it’s almost entirely a Jewish-American behavior. Why? Because of Christmas. Sometime around the 1920s, American Jews began buying gifts for their children to celebrate Hanukkah so they wouldn’t feel left out when all their peers got Christmas gifts, so it’s largely an American invention.
6. But Eating Fried Food is Traditional
Everyone always focuses on gifts and lighting candles, but it’s interesting to note that another tradition in Hanukkah is eating fried food. “Latkes”, a kind of fried potato pancake, are associated closely with the holiday, but they’re actually important because they’re fried. The tradition relates back to the story of Hanukkah and the oil that burned for eight nights. To honor this, Jews eat fried food like latkes and “sufganiyot”, fried donuts that are often jelly-filled. That’s one thing Christmas and Hanukkah do have in common: they’re both incredibly healthy holidays.
7. Blue and White Decorations Aren’t, Though
If you’ve ever seen any decorations for Hanukkah you’ve likely seen strings of blue and white lights or decorations, as opposed to the normal red and green of Christmas. Surprisingly, though, there’s actually no association between Hanukkah and blue and white. Blue and white are important colors for Jews, as the traditional prayer shawl called a “tallit” is usually white with stripes of blue on the ends. Hanukkah decorations in blue and white are another tradition that started in America because of Christmas. To not feel left out of the Christmas spirit, some Jews began decorating with blue and white, but outside the US, this isn’t a common behavior at all.
8. Hanukkah is “The Festival of Lights,” but ‘Hanukkah’ Means Something Different
Finally, it’s important to think about the most important part of Hanukkah. The lighting of the menorah is the most crucial tradition of Hanukkah and the main way Jewish people the world over celebrate the holiday, which is why the holiday is affectionately called The Festival of Lights. The word ‘Hanukkah’, however, actually means ‘rededication’ or ‘consecration’, to commemorate the consecration of the temple by the lighting of the menorah in the Hanukkah story.
In 2020, Hanukkah runs from December 10th to 18th, so if you know anyone Jewish who observes the holiday, wish them a happy holiday and a good new year to come. Hopefully, you understand at least one Jewish tradition a little bit better now.