How Dance Reshaped This Artist's Relationship to Her Prosthesis

May 9, 2021

I was 12 years old when I first started to wear a prosthesis. The prosthetic leg didn’t look very empowering to me at first; I mostly just saw it as a way to stand. Over time I started to observe myself with a certain kind of precision, looking closely at how I was walking, sitting, bending my knees, seeing my body in the mirror, how I would shift to crutches, how I would present myself to another person. I was acting on my instincts.

British anthropologist Tim Ingold has said, “Every movement I make is also a movement of my attention.” This resonates with me. As a teenager living in Brazil amongst a context of poverty, patriarchal structures and violence, it was hard to think so deeply about disability when so much energy was focused on basic needs. Sometimes the social context is the heaviest part of your body.

Dantas crouches down to touch her prosthesis with both hands, next to a man standing with his hands on his chest.
Dantas (in yellow) performing Hot Mess by Theo Clinkard

Stephen Wright, Courtesy Candoco

I first met dance in 2006, when I collaborated with the Roda Viva Cia de Dança based in Natal, Brazil, a company whose work is essential to the history of dance and disability in South America. At that time, I was working exclusively with crutches. I was curious about and fascinated by the range of physicality that this opportunity opened. Before I started contemporary dance, I don’t remember that I’d ever even laid down on the floor while wearing my prosthesis. With my growing experience, I navigated my way through the dance scene, and in 2011 moved to Portugal to join Grupo Dançando com a Diferença.

It took me a while to consider working with my prosthesis, since it has a limited range of flexibility. I struggled with resistance and balance, and was frustrated by the way the leg could fall off when I sweat. It causes daily soreness. I didn’t have the self-discipline at first to develop dance movement with it.

But when I met the Portuguese choreographer Clara Andermatt in 2012, I knew that I no longer could make these excuses. Clara has a creative appetite to work with different bodies, ages and artists with multiple abilities. This period of time saw an incredible jump in my movement skill and sense of perception. Since then, Clara and I have collaborated on several different projects; a highlight is the duet Installing Disorder – a project in mutation, which mixes dance with photography and lecture. Clara had asked me “What if you could walk backwards as you are walking forwards?” My response was to put the prosthesis on backwards. This physical information introduced the idea of paradox to the duet.

I was working as a dancer and performing onstage regularly for many years before I noticed how I was starving for the knowledge of more formal dance training. I decided to undertake the PEPCC/Choreographic Creation, Dance Research and Training Program at Forum Dança in Lisbon. At the same time, I also began circus training with the trapeze. The combination and overlap of these movement practices revealed a new vocabulary for me, and awakened my creative confidence.

Since 2017, I have been part of the main company of Candoco, a London-based contemporary dance company. Over many years Candoco has created a space that gives permission—for me and other artists—to hone our individual artistic language and voice. Through my studio work I can research my physicality and interests, questioning myself: Where are the strengths of my body? Where do I place my narratives? How can I keep my training alive and curious? This practice supports me to reengineer my body with and without a prosthesis.

I admire all the technology that has been developed in the artificial-limb environment. Prosthetic engineering holds knowledge about the mechanics of a system. However, sometimes the way this information is delivered to people can come across as an imperative. The technology often says that the “latest version is the best option.” Sometimes for an individual, the best option is the middle stage, even the oldest version or no version at all. From my observation, I believe it is important to activate a place to listen through the body and recognize its feedback. When this happens, we can amplify the range of movement and empower both sides.

It has been a long journey to discover and acknowledge my relationship to the prosthesis. Today, I do not feel it’s a “third party” to my body, but that it’s one facet of my body composition. The prosthesis is made of matter that somehow comes from natural elements and has a system with functions, pairing with other systems, similar and also far away from the anatomy of the human body. However, there is nature in it and nature is everything.