Lunn performing with Alison Cook Beatty

Russell Haydn, courtesy Lunn

Kitty Lunn Wants the Dance World to Know: "Disability Doesn't Limit Talent"

Kitty Lunn once thought her dance career was over. The former Washington Ballet dancer had slipped on an icy staircase, breaking her back and becoming a paraplegic.

Thirty-three years later, not only is Lunn still dancing (she takes ballet and modern at Steps on Broadway five to six days a week), she also teaches and choreographs through her company, Infinity Dance Theater, which works with dancers with disabilities and non-disabled dancers. Last summer, Lunn performed alongside Infinity Dance Theater company in conjunction with Alison Cook Beatty Dance at New York's Riverside Theatre to rave reviews. She also taught actress Ali Stroker, who, in 2019, became the first person in a wheelchair to win a Tony Award.

Lunn spoke with Dance Magazine about her journey as a dancer and making dance accessible for everyone.

What made you decide to continue dancing after your accident?

"I tried very hard to stop dancing because it just seemed impossible. But I became extremely depressed. It felt like my identity had been stripped from me. I didn't know who I was anymore.

"My husband Andrew said to me, 'Well, if you want to dance what's stopping you?' You know how in cartoons when the light bulb goes off? I realized that I was stopping me. Fear was stopping me."

What was that journey like for you?

"My physical therapist said, 'I think we should make a target date for you to put yourself into dance class.' So on the target date I went to this open ballet class and came home and just started thinking about what dancers do and why. Why do they do the exercises they do? And I started transposing the ballet barre for myself. I obviously wasn't standing up to bend my knees, but what in my body needed to have increased circulation? So I thought about it and I thought: contractions. A little contraction would be a demi plié and a large contraction would be a grand plié and that would start to warm up my middle trunk above my injury."

Lunn leads a group of dancers both in and out of wheelchairs in a ballet port de bras

Courtesy Lunn

What made you decide to start teaching this technique to others?

"It took years, literally years, of working all of this out. After a while the hand control, the chair control, became second nature to me. Now, I had the advantage of having been a dancer prior to acquiring my injury. What about students who were either born with their disabilities or came to their disability before they ever had any dance? I figured that if I could figure this out for myself, I could teach others to do it."

Do you feel like things have improved for disabled dancers since your accident?

"Back then, nobody was talking about it. We're having a dialogue now. But there's still such a disparity between professionally-trained dancers with disabilities and community outreach dance. I look forward to a time when there will be dancers with and without disabilities in mainstream dance companies. When we stop making that distinction. Disability doesn't limit talent. And ability also doesn't give you talent that you don't have."

What do you think needs to change to make that happen?

"I think it starts as everything starts: with the willingness to have an open mind. What stymies people is they get hung up in the medical device. They see the wheelchair; they don't see the potential of the dancer. If you're told, 'Don't even try this' long enough, your body believes it. I spend so much time teaching people with disabilities to give themselves permission to move in ways they never thought possible."

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Moving Forward by Looking Back: A Week at the L.A. Tap Festival Online

I turned to tap at the outset of the European lockdown as a meaningful escape from the anxiety of the pandemic. As a dance historian specialized in dance film, I've seen my fair share of tap on screen, but my own training remains elementary. While sheltering in place, my old hardwood floors beckoned. I wanted to dig deeper in order to better understand tap's origins and how the art form has evolved today. Not so easy to accomplish in France, especially from home.

Enter the L.A. Tap Fest's first online edition.

Alongside 100 other viewers peering out from our respective Zoom windows, I watch a performer tap out rhythms on a board in their living room. Advanced audio settings allow us to hear their feet. In the chat box, valuable resources are being shared and it's common to see questions like, "Can you post the link to that vaudeville book you mentioned?" Greetings and words of gratitude are also exchanged as participants trickle in and out from various times zones across the US and around the world.