Full Radius Dance — Disability Integrated Modern Dance

Dance scene of man in wheelchair balancing on front wheels holding hands of two female dancers with hands reaching backwards
Full Radius dancers Matthe Smith, Julianna Feracota and Courtney Michelle Mcclendon
Full Radius Dance is a physically integrated dance company founded in 1998 in Atlanta, Georgia. The collaborative dance space encourages all body types to perform, learn and create while pushing the boundaries of equity and accessibility within the dance world. With flexible choreography and class structure, dancers are able to transpose the movements to their own bodies and experience the freedom of dance through autonomous expression.

ABILITY Magazine’s Jennifer Woodall joins Full Radius Dance’s founder, Douglas Scott, in a virtual interview to discuss the history of the company, what it means to be a physically integrated dance company, accessibility within the dance world and creating a supportive dance space.

Jennifer Woodall:  Hello, how are you?
Douglas Scott: I’m well. Good morning.

Woodall: Good morning! What inspired you to start Full Radius Dance?

Scott: It actually came about almost by accident. I had already founded a dance company, which I describe as your traditional dance company. They were all professional dancers without disabilities. I wanted the company to get more involved in the local community. Back in—I guess it was 1990, there was a two-day workshop here in Atlanta about bringing the arts to different populations, and part of that was for people with mental illness, for people who are incarcerated or at-risk youth.
One of the sessions was dance for people with disabilities. And, of course, as a dancer, I gravitated towards that. That was my very first exposure to physically integrated dance. I was immediately struck and intrigued because here was bodies that didn’t look like mine and didn’t fit society’s conception of the dancing body. So, I left that session deep in thought.
Not long after that, I was contacted by what was then called Very Special Arts Georgia — which VS Arts of Georgia no longer exist— but they wanted to start launching dance classes for dancers of all abilities here in Atlanta. I was invited to a two-day workshop.— Which in retrospect is quite humorous, that they thought anybody could learn all this in two days. And out of that, I was asked to start teaching classes once a week here in Atlanta at the Shepherd Center gymnasium alongside two other teachers.

At the end of that first year, I was the only teacher left for various reasons. But every class I went in, I was challenged as a teacher. I had wonderful students that were willing to learn alongside of me. It really almost reinvigorated my career. It gave me a focus and a passion that I didn’t know I possessed. So, from then on—I think it was like in ’95.— The class got a chance to perform in a professional setting. The response was so great. After that, we just kept on. I operated two different companies for a while, my traditional company and my physically integrated company until it was like, “Well, why am I doing this? My passion is in physically integrated dance.” So, we combined the two companies. In 1998, they combined and became Full Radius Dance.

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Woodall: That’s awesome. Can you tell me a little bit about the Art of Disability?
Scott: The Art of Disability is our community engagement program where we get out in front of the public. It is exactly what it says; it shows that there’s art lying within the disabled body, and there’s art that lies within the combination of the non-disabled and disabled body. The Art of Disability, in particular, launched at the High Museum of Art pre-pandemic, where I went to the High alongside members of the Emory University Disability Studies program.
We just went through the High Museum’s permanent collection and found artwork by artists who identify as disabled, found artwork that depicts a disabled body or the artwork in which we could infer disability was existing in because we were looking for it. I think 20 different artworks. Out of that, I chose four, and the company created a dance work based on that. We have a partnership coming up with Atlanta History Center, which we’re going to be doing the same thing, going through the archives and the exhibits at the Atlantic History Center to find those people with disabilities that are represented or inferred in the collection.
Woodall: Now, when you choreograph the dances around these artworks, are you performing the dances in the art space by the artworks then?
Scott: We had wanted to do that, but with the exhibit space, particularly at the High, it just wouldn’t work out, particularly with, I’m sure, insurance and all that. Getting the audience in the gallery space as well. So, we performed it in the Atrium.
Woodall: The Atrium at the High Museum?
Scott: Yes, the Atrium at the High Museum.
two women in a dance pose

Woodall: Okay, that’s super cool. Do you have a group that’s in charge of doing the choreography? Do you have one specific choreographer, or do you all work on it together?
Scott:  I describe myself as the leading choreographic voice in Full Radius Dance, but the very nature of our work is highly collaborative. I have a myriad of approaches that we do. I may bring in a poem, it may be a short story, it may be just a picture, or it may just be my ideas. And I ask them to go create movement that is authentic to their own bodies. Then they bring it back, and then I start manipulating it. Other times I bring in set movement. We have just so many approaches that we use, but it always stays very collaborative. I may think that someone in a manual chair can execute this turn in two counts, but sometimes no; maybe they need four counts. We’re very well known for our partnering work. A lot of that, I just can’t work out by myself. Then I have to have the bodies there, as you know, because bodies are so different. Bodies without disabilities are different. Bodies with disabilities are different. How I might partner one dancer in a move when I take that move over to another dancer, it’s completely different because of, maybe, the turn radius of the chair, the range of motion that we both have in the movement.
Woodall: No, that makes sense, it’s great that you’re so open to all of the different bodies and how they can move, and are able to adjust that by being flexible with the choreography.
Scott: Really, where I’ve grown —I came up through the ballet world, where there’s one type of body. There was one way to do the movement right.— It really became freeing and opened up so many more artistic possibilities when I got rid of that strict standard that this is what a dancer’s body looks like, and that there’s only one way, there’s only one right way to complete a dance movement. I now realize it’s great, it works for ballet, but it doesn’t work for my artistic process. The way I believe the majority of us move and think about dance.
Woodall:  I’m sure it’s different from performance to performance, but just generally, what work goes into planning and preparing a performance in a public space?
Scott: First consideration is always what the public space is. For instance, we were at Children’s Museum of Atlanta for the past couple of years on a very small stage. We had to think about the piece we were doing and make it fit to that space. If we just limited ourselves to a 30’ x 50’ stage, we would not be out there in the community as much as we want to be. It’s very important for us to be able to adapt and transpose our movement to fit all these spaces. We find out about the space. For the Children’s Museum, it was the winter solstice, so we already had a piece that was based on that, so we adapted to that. For other places, it’s like, “Is there a theme? Is there not a theme?”. Most of the time, we just adapt pieces that we already have in the repertory, which enables us to be out there more. If we had to choreograph something new for every place we went, we wouldn’t be out there as much at all. That was part of me getting over the fact that, “Okay, we can do this piece again. The same people aren’t going to see it”.
Woodall: It’s just like a touring art show, too. The photos or the paintings are the same at all of the showings, but the impact is going to be different based on the space and who’s viewing it.

Scott: Exactly

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Woodall: Can you tell me about the MAD Festival? What is that?

Scott:  Oh, wow. The MAD Festival, it’s in it’s 30 plus years now, I think. Way back in the day, there was another dance festival here in town sponsored by an organization, which is no longer with us, called Dancers Collective. It was an opportunity for the various companies and artists to come together and perform sharing the same stage. They lost funding for it. I was like, “Okay, I think this is really valuable, so what can I do to make it continue?” At that time, I was an Adjunct Assistant at Agnes Scott College, so I traded my teaching for space. I got a theater space in return for teaching. We launched the Mad Festival in about 1995 — I don’t know. It’s all a blur to me anymore.

(laughs)

Scott:  Several years after that, people thought it was an adjudicated festival. At the time, it wasn’t. So, I made the conscious choice to switch to a festival that people submit to. I have a panel of adjudicators who do not reside in the state of Georgia. It was very important to remove, get some distance away, and they rank and select who’s going to be in the festival each year.

Woodall: Choosing them to not be in the state of Georgia, is that to get rid of any bias towards one dancer to make it fairer?
Scott: Yes. I didn’t want to have a thing where someone had to recuse themselves because they were good friends with this person. Also, I wanted a really outside eye because the adjudicators do provide feedback to each of the applicants, whether they’re successful or not. I just thought having that from around the country would be very valuable for the applicants.
Woodall: Does your dance company host classes?
Scott: We do. We just recently reopened our company classes; they are on Wednesday mornings. We do have a stock pile of virtual classes available on YouTube, but they’re currently linked as private, so we do ask people to register for those. We’ll be happy to send out those links. During the height of the pandemic, our virtual classes were super popular. And now that the world mistakenly has thought it’s over COVID, they’re not as popular. Previously, we had people coming from India, from Spain to attend classes. We also offer a Summer Intensive, which is the first week in August, which is attended by dancers from all over the world.
Dance scene, three wheelchair users holding long red fabric, woman with yellow fabric in foreground
Woodall: What do you cover in the classes? Is it for all dance levels or is it for more experienced dancers?
Scott: It is for all levels. So much of dance technique assumes a set of paradigms that are applicable to only people without disabilities. I’m very proud that Full Radius Dance has created this full body technique that can be done by all bodies. We use the word transpose a lot, that we realize that everybody’s range of motion is different, and we encourage you and show you how to transpose the movement into your own body without losing the intent of the movement or the difficulty of the movement.
Woodall: Can you tell me what is the difference between the classes that you hold and then the Summer Intensive? What sets that apart?
Scott: Summer Intensive is a much deeper dive. We’re assuming someone’s going to be there for a full week. So, we get more into the background, the philosophy of the Full Radius Dance technique. We do a lot of choreography, teaching rep that we’ve already done and having people then transpose it onto their own bodies so they get to learn how we work and how to put this into practice. We also get, sometimes, into a little bit of improvisation and different techniques. The Summer Intensive is a much deeper dive, much more of a chance to have a dialog with me and the dancers themselves about the whole technique and the practice. So, the classes are basically you’re there with us for like an hour. You come in, we run through our exercises, and then you’re gone. The Summer Intensive is that chance for a deep dive.
Woodall: How long are you typically with the dancers during the Intensive for the day?
Scott: It starts in the morning and goes to about two o’clock, with a regularly schedule breaks. The breaks are sacred to us, both as a company and in the Intensive, that we know that, “Okay, this It’s time we’re stopping.” We offer that in the Intensive as well. There’s a lunch break every day.
Woodall: That sounds super hands-on, and also a collaborative space, which is really cool.
Scott: We also—which is different from regular classes— If you need to sit out on the side and just watch, we make no judgments about that. You need to go out to do some self-care, I do not get offended when you leave my class. The power of your body remains with you the entire time you’re with Full Radius Dance.
Woodall:  I love that. There’s so much pressure to feel like you have to act a certain way, and I’m sure that dancers have experienced that, too, within the rigidity of the dance world. I’m sure it’s really refreshing to have a space where you can just be like, “I’m going to go for a second” and then come back and not be judged about it.

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Woodall: You mentioned earlier that you’re a dancer, right?

Scott:  I am retired from the stage, but yes, I trained as a dancer, came up as a dancer. It was primarily ballet, but my hips just don’t have that turn out. Then I started doing more modern dance and found out, well, this is where I belong. This is where my heart belongs. This is where my body belongs.
Woodall:  We have this site called ability Entertainment or abilityE, and it’s a place where people who identify with having a disability that are within the entertainment industry can come. It’s a place where they can find jobs within the entertainment industry or if productions want to hire a person identifying as having a disability, they can reach out to them. It would be a cool thing for the dancers to get involved in.
Scott: I’m going to let them know about that. I often get casting calls that come across my virtual desk, and I didn’t realize abilityE existed.
Woodall:  It’s an awesome network. It would be a cool resource for your dancers.
Scott: I will let them know.
Woodall: Is there anything that you want to talk about that we haven’t covered yet?
Scott: I just always note that I identify as non-disabled. My good friend Alice Sheppard, who’s the Director of Kinetic Light, helped me come up with “I’m a non-disabled knowledge bearer of disability in physically integrated dance”. I work in physically integrated dance, which cannot exist without both the non-disabled and the disabled body. We’re very much committed to making sure there’s equity within the studio, equity on stage. We’re very conscious of power dynamics and how they might manifest and subjugating those. It’s a great way to work. It’s a really exciting way to work. I think the physically integrated rehearsal space and performance space could teach a lot to the mainstream dance world.

Full Radius Dance

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