Redefining Disability One Pirouette At a Time

| 02 Mar 2015 | 05:05

Kitty Lum's Infinity Dance Theatre for dancers with disabilities wowed Upper West Side audiences in last week's annual performance

Arms carefully poised upward and outward, stretching toward the ceiling with the grace and precision that only a professional dancer could achieve, Upper West Side native Kitty Lunn finishes another one of her original pieces: a duet called The Unbound Suite. Like most dancers practicing for a performance or recital, she will pull 15-18 hour days leading up to the performance - choreographing pieces, and making sure everything from the costumes to the narration, and each movement, is perfect.

The only difference is that Kitty Lunn does all of this from a wheelchair.

Lunn, 63, a youthful woman with brilliant red hair and a vivacious way of telling stories, fell in love with dance at an early age. She started a modest and promising career with the New Orleans Civic Ballet and had roles in such classics as The Nutcracker and Swan Lake. In 1987, while in the midst of preparing for her first Broadway role in New York, she slipped on a patch of ice on her way to a dinner date, and fell down a flight of stairs. After spending three years in the hospital, Lunn emerged a paraplegic, and will most likely spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair. For a dancer, the diagnosis was particularly devastating news, but Lunn refused to view her life as a tragedy.

"I found that the process of dancing remains remarkably the same for me, both sitting down and standing up," said Lunn. "The dancer inside you doesn't care about your cancer, loneliness, or your inability to use your legs; the dancer inside you just wants to keep dancing."

And so in 1995, she started Infinity Dance Studio, a dance company on West 93rd Street for disabled dancers like herself who cannot, and will not, silence the dancer inside of them. The dance company's annual recital performance took place last week downtown at Theater for the New City. It was entitled "Unbound: Dancing From Here to There" and featured two separate shows. The Modern Concert featured several performances like the Unbound Suite, a duet between Kitty and another dancer Alice, as well as a romantic duet entitled "Take Me Home" performed by Kitty and her husband, Andrew.

The second show, called "The Women's Stories" featured various women re-enacting, through dance, various difficulties in their life, like going through a diagnosis of breast cancer, or losing a husband after 50 years of marriage. Lunn narrated the stories of these women while they performed. The entire show was inspired by Lunn's philosophy on life in a wheelchair.

"So many people refer to wheelchair users as being wheelchair bound, and to me that brings up two images: one of being tied down in chains, and the other of being really constipated," said Lunn. "The only thing I'm really bound by is my own imagination."

Lunn splits her time between running her Infinity Dance Studio, taking dance lessons at Steps at Broadway and 74th Street, and teaching dance to students at the Manhattan School for Children on West 93rd Street. She doesn't charge her students at Infinity Dance Studio, because she understands the financial difficulties of living off disability support.

Although Lunn has no problem with being open and talkative about her disability, she seems to prefer telling stories about those whose lives she has touched, like Lynn, who inspired Lunn to create the Women's Stories performance. Lynn had been devastated after the loss of her husband after 50 years of marriage, and did not want to ever dance again. Lunn, however, insisted on Lynn coming to the studio and attempting to do a warm-up, while she herself read from Lunn's journal. "I don't care if tears are streaming down your face," she had told Lynn at the time. "You dishonor your husband's memory if you stop moving."

Lunn's tough love approach to her friend's sadness mirrors the way she views her own personal tragedies, of which she has had her fair share, from losing her infant son to finding out that she had an inoperable brain tumor after her accident.

"Life will go on with or without you and it's amazing how quickly it will go on without you," she said. "Even in the midst of a devastating situation, your life changes but it does not stop unless you want it to."

Lunn's life views spilled out into her work, especially when she was tasked with creating dance workshops for severely disabled patients at a hospital. One woman, Jennifer, particularly struck her. Jennifer had such extreme cerebral palsy that she could only move one finger and blink. Miles, another patient, had such severe spasms that he had to be tied into his wheelchair. But he could operate a power chair, so Lunn had Jenny dragging behind Miles' powerchair. When he let her go, she could spin in something like a pirouette.

Throughout the triumphs and struggles of the disabled part of her life, there has always been one constant: Lunn's husband Andrew. It was Andrew who she had been meeting for the dinner date on the night her life changed forever. And even though they had only been on a couple of dates, Andrew stood by her side for three years while she recovered in a hospital. And six months after she got out, they were married. Andrew, who Lunn describes as having a bit of a "two left feet problem," made his dancing debut in "Take Me Home." For the first several minutes of the performance, she is on the floor, struggling and attempting to get up. At the end of their duet, Andrew comes on stage with her wheelchair, and "takes her home."

The two will be celebrating their 25th anniversary this year.

Andrew has been there for her for the past 25 years, said Lunn, from changing her wheelchair tires in an emergency, to making sure she can get around all right. And the other part of her life that will always be there for her is dance. Lunn described a low point in her life when she had regular seizures.

"Even in my darkest hours when I was told I had an inoperable brain tumor, and I was having seizures, I never gave up," said Lunn. "When I got in my dance chair I never had a seizure while dancing. There's just something about it that's so life affirming."