Simi Linton, a wheelchair-riding social activist, takes us out dancing with the avant-garde of disabled artists and radical thinkers - unstoppable in their quest for “equality, justice, and a place on the dance floor!"

Beginning with the title, it’s hard not to feel welcomed by Invitation to Dance, a new documentary by Simi Linton and Christian von Tippelskirch that screened last Saturday at the Margaret Meade Film Festival in New York City.  It invites us into a world where the freeing, sensuous power of dance is available to many different kinds of bodies.  It invites us to see how the movements of people in wheelchairs, people with the rolling gait of cerebral palsy, people with one arm or leg, people with conjoined fingers, crutches, braces, and all manner of adaptive devices challenge the ways the able bodied have defined what counts as dance.  As it does so, Invitation to Dance tells a story about movement as a form of self-expression and as the collective public actions of people with disabilities demanding the right to access and inclusion. 
disabilityWhen Simi Linton became a wheelchair user following a car accident that killed her husband and best friend in 1972, she knew nothing of the movement for disability rights that was just emerging in the United States.  She dutifully completed her rehab program, went home, and accepted that there were things she just couldn’t do anymore.  When she found herself excluded from social gatherings, classrooms, restaurants, and public transportation, she understood that she was the problem.  To ask that a class be moved, sidewalks equipped with curb cuts, or bathroom stalls expanded seemed embarrassingly narcissistic.

Decades later, as a teacher and public speaker, Linton tells audience members to raise their left hands in the air.  “This hand is society,” she tells them.  “Now, make your right hand into a fist.  That’s the person with a disability.”  Traditionally, our attention has focused on the way the fist of disability fails to fit the outstretched hand of society.  When the fist doesn’t conform, she explains, we say its failures and limitations are to blame.  Disability studies—and the disability rights movement that inspired it—focuses on how the hand of society creates barriers to access and imagines how it could be more accommodating to bodies and minds that are different from the norm.

Invitation to Dance tells the story of Linton’s conversion from fist to hand as her life and work intersected with a broader movement for the rights of people with disabilities.  Linton was an activist even before her accident, and her affiliation with disability rights is a natural outgrowth of her involvement in the women’s and anti-war movements.  Her story is intercut with footage showing important moments in its history such as activists crawling up the steps of the U.S. Capitol building and the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

Invitation to Dance is also about less visible forms of discrimination.  Most public bathrooms, Linton explains to a group of design students (gathered for an unconventional teaching moment in a public bathroom), don’t hang mirrors at a level where a wheelchair user can see her reflection.  When Linton’s husband needed emergency surgery, there were no wheelchair-accessible taxis.  Forced to take a public bus, she arrived too late to see him before the operation.  When she visited Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, she found an attractive entrance ramp curving up the side of the building.  Attractive, but not useful, Linton notes as the camera travels up the ramp, capturing the perspective of a wheelchair user.  Through her eyes, we see how its high walls and narrow width cut the wheelchair user off from her companions and other building traffic.  Once inside, Linton discovered the restaurant was accessible only by stairs.  Contrast the unwelcoming design of Disney Hall with the bright openness of the Guggenheim Museum, built with a ramp as its central feature rather than a necessary afterthought.  We see Linton and her friend, dancer Alice Sheppard, rolling through the Guggenheim, chairs and bodies moving in a graceful synchrony.

Documentary footage of Linton’s childhood shows a girl constantly in motion.  After her accident, Linton believed that chapter of her life was over.  Her body in a chair was incompatible with dance.  Watching the Tea Dances at Fire Island in the 1970s gave her the first glimmer of hope that she would dance again.  And dance she did, at parties, in the streets, and in the ballroom space of the Society for Disability Studies conferences.  According the Linton, dance is a powerful means to include people with disabilities and recognize their capacity for self-expression.  Dance has everything to do with sexuality, public visibility, reclaiming space, and access to a life richer than just a struggle for basic survival.  Invitation showcases the great variety of dance that can fall under the rubric of disability, from the gorgeously choreographed performances of Homer Avila and the AXIS dance company to the rougher more confrontational work of the GIMP project and lively, improvised dances at private parties and conferences.

invitation-to-dance2 Invitation to Dance intercuts scenes of disabled bodies in vibrant, sensuous motion with scenes of professors and activists talking about issues of access, disability rights, and the power and meaning of dance as a form of cultural expression. But their eloquence risks obscuring the role dance has played for those who lack the ability to express themselves with verbal speech or writing.  Focusing on the professional and social circles that define Linton’s orbit, Invitation to Dance doesn’t mention dance troupes that incorporate people with intellectual disabilities such as Karen Peterson, Restless Dance Theatre (Australia), Jolt Dance (New Zealand), or Anjali Dance Company (UK).  The work of these groups proves that dancers with autism, Down syndrome, and other intellectual disabilities are equally passionate and capable of using their bodies as a means of self-expression, even if they are less verbally adept.

Noting the film’s omissions, I’m aware of how this is Simi Linton’s party.  She is a charming, articulate, and irascible host and her celebration is well deserved.  A scene near the end finds Linton, Sheppard, and dancer Lezlee Frye in a bar following a performance.  Here are three good friends laughing, drinking, and having a grand time.  Sheppard rolls her eyes with exasperation at how frequently (literally, every day) she is called “inspirational” for doing ordinary things.  Frye mocks an audience member who described her performance as “so inspirational and sad.”  The three women dissolve into helpless laughter.  There is something a bit unkind about making fun of this spectator’s earnest and, no doubt, well-meaning response.  But given the long history of people with disabilities being reduced to figures of pity or inspiration, we must surely agree that these women—talented, powerful, and, yes, flawed like the rest of us—are entitled this private moment of comradeship and levity.  Invitation to Dance lets us share that moment and to feel, for an hour or so, that we have been allowed to join their party.

Rachel Adams likes to have her cake and eat it too.

Invitation to Dance and The Fund for Santa Barbara

Shortly after hearing that INVITATION TO DANCE would have its world premiere at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, we learned that our film was placed in competition in the Social Justice Documentary Film category.   Extraordinary!!
We are honored to be nominated for the award given annually by The Fund for Santa Barbara “to a film that makes a particularly valuable contribution to advancing social justice.”
The Fund ( is a nonprofit community foundation that supports organizations working for social, economic, environmental & political change in Santa Barbara County. We have since learned that The Fund has recognized disability as a social justice issue from the beginning.  In fact, the first grant they gave, in 1980, was to Rod Lathim and Access Theatre (a wonderful integrated theatre company).
The Fund has helped us with outreach in Santa Barbara, and has provided funds to increase the number of wheelchair locations in The Lobero Theatre for our Sunday night premiere.
On Monday, February 3, at noon Christian and Simi will be on a panel of Social Justice Filmmakers, chaired by Geoff Green, the Executive Director for The Fund for Santa Barbara. The Fund has a long history including:grassroots organizing against discrimination of all kinds, supporting the rights & dignity of working people, promoting community self-determination, organizing for peace and nonviolence, working to improve the quality of our environment, and building cross-issue/cross-constituency coalitions and alliances.
It is deeply meaningful to us that an organization whose motto is “change not charity” has recognized INVITATION TO DANCE, whose motto is: “equality, justice, and a place on the dance floor.” 


Last night the crowdfunding campaign for INVITATION TO DANCE ended with fireworks and hoorays! Together, we raised $30,700. We are humbled by your generosity, and feel deep gratitude toward each of you. You have given us the means to finish the film. The outpouring of support from such a broad spectrum of people proves that there is a ready audience for the film.

Once the film is finished, we will move on to distribution, film festival entry, and then begin screenings across the country and internationally. We will keep you updated on our progress and will continue to strengthen the community around the film and the many issues it raises.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Christian and Simi

New York Women in Film and Television & INVITATION TO DANCE: A Great Match

New York Women in Film and Television (NYWIFT) has been one of our staunchest supporters.  Check out their website and you will see INVITATION TO DANCE featured there.  Our film twice received NYWIFT’s Loreen Arbus Disability Awareness Grant.

Here are photos of Christian and Simi at the 2009 and 2011 NYWIFT Muse Awards luncheon where the awards were presented.   The 2011 picture is with our friend and ally Loreen Arbus – an extraordinary advocate for disability rights.

Thank you, NYWIFT, for all that you do.
Christian & Simi

Power Conductor/Power Chair

The NY Times Music Critic, Anthony Tommasini, concludes his rave review of James Levine’s return to conducting after a two-year absence on a most peculiar note: “…you have to admire the pluck and determination he has shown in this remarkable comeback.”

Pluck and determination are terms usually reserved for Little Orphan Annie, and not for “one of the greatest living American conductors.”  You have to wonder why. 

Levine has returned to conducting using a motorized wheelchair.  A number of health problems over the past several years have made it increasingly difficult for him to walk.  For the concert, Carnegie Hall provided an elevating podium, with wood paneling designed to match the elegant interior of the room. 

Tommasini commented on these accommodations, and detailed the careful staging of Levine’s entrances, and his pivots to greet the audience. In describing a seeming glitch in his rotation of his chair, Tommasini noted that this is a reminder of “how unusual it is for a conductor to have to work out such mechanical matters.”

“This was Mr. Levine at his best,“ he wrote, and added many particulars about the power of the conducting and of the conductor – who “was actually bouncing around on the chair, smiling at the musicians, sometimes singing the music audibly and looking altogether unrestrained.”  All in all, he gave Levine a strong positive review.
Levine loves his craft, loves his work.  It is, in many respects, unremarkable that he should return to it.  That is not to discount how difficult it must have been to regain the strength and agility he needed, but to acknowledge what was likely Levine’s capacity to see himself doing what he had always done, in a different way.
The boldness of Levine’s imagination is familiar to many disabled people.  In the face of so much evidence that being an actor, or a doctor, or a teacher or a conductor is not the province of people with significant impairments, many plow through and do it.  Tommasini’s reductive “pluck and determination” barely covers that complexity, and his terminology diminishes the potency of an otherwise glowing review of Levine’s conducting triumph.

Icons of the Disability Arts Community: Part 1

A brief moment to witness an instance of cultural connectedness.  This week two of the icons of disability arts celebrated birthdays.  
Lynn Manning, April 30th, is an award winning poet, playwright, actor, and former World Champion of blind judo.  Riva Lehrer, April 25th, is an extraordinary artist, teacher, writer and more.  They have each, in theatre and in painting, worked with disability and brought a new light to it, a new way of seeing it.

Riva’s beautifully rendered portrait of Lynn is below (Lynn Manning: Comet), along with a self-portrait (At 54).   Following that is a photo of Simi, Lynn, Sharon Snyder and David Mitchell, taken at a conference on Representing Disability, Haverford College, 2006.   All were speaking or performing at that conference.  Further, Sharon and David are filmmakers (as well as theorists, writers and more), and Riva is the subject of their documentary Self-Preservation: The Art of Riva Lehrer.

Happy Birthday, Lynn and Riva.  A toast to you and your work.

“Lynn Manning: Comet”
2007 charcoal on paper

(Riva Lehrer drawing of Lynn Manning- tall black man, facing forward, bare chest, holding his white cane with tip in air above his head)

“At 54”
2012 mixed media and dimensional collage on Amate paper

(Riva Lehrer self portrait- white woman, red hair, in pink dress, suspended in midair like a marionette puppet)

Simi, Lynn Manning, Sharon Snyder & David Mitchell outdoors at the 2006 Representing Disability conference, Haverford College 

Our Thanks to AHEAD

As we work to finish the film, the Invitation to Dance team is forging partnerships with a number of prominent organizations.  These new collaborations are pushing our social media and outreach campaigns forward.  We are delighted by the enthusiastic responses, and we will be introducing our partners over the next few weeks.        

AHEAD (Association on Higher Education and Disability) is one of the first organizations we contacted.  The organization is committed to the full participation of people with disabilities in all aspects of college and university life.  With members on campuses across the U.S. and around the world, they are involved in policy development and service provision.  AHEAD champions the rights of disabled students, faculty and staff.  In short – they do wonderful work.

In the recent issue of their newsletter, ALERT*, they published an article about how Invitation to Dance, along with our outreach materials, will be of value to their members. "Disability resource centers can use this package to spearhead events that will stimulate campus-wide conversations, and rally support for your efforts aimed at social integration, enriched curriculum, and equity.  These events are also terrific opportunities to bring campus and community together – engaging people from disability rights groups, veterans organizations, independent living centers, religious institutions etc. " 

Thanks, AHEAD.  It’s going to take a village to finish Invitation to Dance, bring people together and get these conversations going!  

*currently available to members only