Ellice Patterson is a dancer. But eight years ago, after a spinal operation, Ellice had to start the painstaking process of relearning her craft. She made the tough decision to start over as an adult in children’s classes. Two years later, Ellice had regained her ability to dance, and had begun teaching children and adults alike.
However, when Ellice decided she was ready to step into the world of professional dance, professional dance decided they weren’t ready for her. Ellice was told that a “professional” company could not adapt to her needs. So she decided to prove those companies wrong by starting her own. She is now the founder and CEO of Abilities Dance, a nonprofit dance company that welcomes dancers of all mental and physical abilities.
Ellice is part dancer, part #girlboss, and a total badass. Keep reading to learn more about Ellice’s unique experience as we spill the tea on kicking in the doors that others tried to slam shut.
Hi, Ellice! Thank you so much for agreeing to a Disabili-tea interview. I’m so excited to delve into your story and experiences. For those who don’t know, you are the founder and CEO of Abilities Dance in Boston. What was your experience leading up to starting your own dance company?
Thanks for having me! I felt that there wasn’t truly a space in the Boston area where I could develop and train on a professional level that would be able to modify to my body. There’s also a literal barrier to entry as most of the major dance hubs are inaccessible. I wanted to create opportunities for myself and others. It’s mad corny, but the phrase “Be the change you want to see” really propelled me. I wanted to see diverse bodies celebrated in a way that I hadn’t before. I wanted to see dancers with varying disabilities working with people without disabilities telling stories through movement where everyone is seen as equal professional dancers. I wanted to see black/disabled dancers, trans/disabled dancers, and so many other intersections within the disability community that I do and don’t identify with because that’s how people can begin to grasp intersectional disability rights.
Many disabled people (myself included) are used to being excluded, or being denied a seat at the table. That exclusion elicits anger, sadness, feelings of major injustice. I think it can be easy to live in those feelings, or to feel like the universe owes us something to correct the balance of inequality. What was it that made you take matters into your own hands, to turn those feelings into action?
I was raised by my memaw and mother, two strong Southern black women. They never allowed discrimination and exclusion to halt them, and they wouldn’t allow that for me either. We’re still really close and I call them all of the time. To this day, whenever I call them and have a day where someone or a group of folks treated me or my company unfairly and I just feel rage or discouraged, they let me get it out for a bit then say how can we change their minds, the current outcome, or future outcomes?
I was raised by my memaw and mother, two strong Southern black women. They never allowed discrimination and exclusion to halt them, and they wouldn’t allow that for me either.
It’s important to acknowledge those feelings because it’s hard out here in these inaccessible streets. However, living in the feelings does nothing to the other party and is detrimental to your well being. You have to figure out a way to turn that rage into action. For me, it was dance. It has been different things for different people but I think we’re all working towards the same goal of equality.
Because I’ve been in a wheelchair my entire adult life, and wore leg braces before that, I just never considered dancing an option for myself. I loved watching people leap and spin across a stage, but I always thought of myself as totally separate from it. Do you find that disabled women are enthusiastic about the opportunity to dance on stage? Or, does it take some confidence building, tearing down those preconceived notions about what we’re “allowed” to do, before most are comfortable with the idea of getting up there?
That question honestly depends on how comfortable women are in their bodies and devices. Those who are less comfortable or learning who they are in their disabled identity feel less comfortable on stage. Those who are more comfortable have no problem jumping into new things or highlighting their technique if they have been dancing or been involved in other performing arts.
For me, I recently went through another spinal operation and that has greatly affected my technique and usual movement tendencies. I am in the process of reacquainting myself with my body. The disconnect is affecting how comfortable I feel on stage. It’s important to admit that because it’s real for me. It’s also important to note that I won’t be in that space for long because I have done it before and I will do it again.
One thing I really love and appreciate about your mission with Abilities Dance is the intersectionality of inclusion. I read in an article from Brookline Hub that you have a dance writer who offers audio descriptions to enhance the experience for visually impaired audience members. What are your thoughts on intersectionality within the disabled community and how do you think we can do a better job with our inclusion?
We could all be doing so much better! When I first started the company, I only had some knowledge of spinal-related disabilities based on my own experience. I assumed that and some mobility-related disabilities would be what the company would consist of. Yikes at my own ignorance. I am proud that since our first show almost two years ago, we have had a wide range of disabilities in the company artistically and administratively, in addition to audience members. Audio descriptions came up as I noticed my colleagues incorporated descriptions in their work and we started working with a low-vision dancer and blind/low-vision youth. By then I knew better and wanted to think of how do we not just incorporate this as a point of access but something that is ultimately engaging and mimics the intent of the choreography, hence working with a dance writer who already has a beautiful way of explaining movement.
When thinking of intersectional inclusion in the community, it’s important to note that you will fuck up. Sometimes, the fuck up will be larger and more public than others, which can be a very hard pill to swallow for a company. It will happen continually as access needs differ from individual and evolve over time. The best way to combat that is acknowledging the failed accessibility moments and then listening to those who were failed as to how you can be better. Then actually incorporate that feedback into your next pursuit. It might fail again but as long as you are honestly trying to be better, the community will ultimately support you until you are better.
I’m sure you are called an “inspiration” often. I think all disabled people are labeled as inspirational when we’re just living. (To be clear, I am personally motivated by what you’ve accomplished, although I would use the term “aspirational”.) Do you see us heading toward a time where disabled people are represented more thoroughly in mainstream entertainment to the point where we’re not inspirational, or tragic, or even a novelty? In other words, do you think the future of dance is Abilities Dance?
I’m so fucking tired of being called an inspiration. My insane hustle, not my disability, is the real inspiration here. The fact that I created a 501c3 dance company that has performed in multiple states, engaged with large community organizations, and started to change the conversation in my city in the past two years with absolutely no money and working multiple full and part-time jobs in the interim is an inspiration.
I’m so fucking tired of being called an inspiration. My insane hustle, not my disability, is the real inspiration here.
That aside, I really hope that we are seen in mainstream entertainment as the multi-faceted humans that we see folks without disabilities being represented as. It’s hard to see right now for instance with recent movies of disabled characters stuck in the inspirational/tragic narratives with not much outside of those two limiting and basic narratives and played by those without disabilities. (Cough cough The Upside, Me Before You, and more) There are plenty of artists with disabilities so the excuse that it is hard to find them is inexcusable in 2019. Those with disabilities must be represented in the decision-making roles to call out the absurdity of the tropes and paint a more representative picture in their art.
I do believe the future of dance is Abilities Dance (and other integrated dance companies). I always tell people my true end goal is for a dance history student one hundred years from now to be mortified that the industry was so segregated and that my company was among the major players to turn that tide. It’s a human right that everyone should have equal opportunity to participate in the arts. Dance should not be an exception.
Let’s talk body positivity. I first discovered you on Instagram through a post made by accessible underwear company, Slick Chicks. In that post, you say that your definition of beauty is accepting every aspect of your body and soul and living your truest self unapologetically. In the repost of your image by Slick Chicks, they used the word “imperfections” in their description, which they later retracted and corrected after the disabled community responded. How did that situation affect or reinforce your feelings on body positivity, and what advice would you give to other disabled women about accepting our bodies the way they are, unapologetically?
I remember that day very well. That was a YIKES situation. Despite the retraction, it still happened. The situation resurfaced heavy negative body feelings. Even though there were some positive responses, I did get some really negative messages like “Well your body is imperfect, just look at your stretch marks or scars.” I don’t have a large following so a lot of comments and messages (positive and negative) about my body was an overwhelming feeling.
Unfortunately, I took that offline and in my relationship. I went over to my boyfriend at the time and vented about the situation. He was encouraging and supportive. Later on, when we were having sex, he called me “beautiful” and I completely lost it. I started bawling (the heavy, snotty, gasping for breath kind of bawling) immediately while he was still inside of me. Also a YIKES situation. Needless to say, the sex paused and he just held me while I cried through years of body shame. It was a while before we resumed sexual intimacy and longer before I resumed my previous level of body confidence.
My advice would be that body positivity is not linear and that’s okay. There are times where you won’t feel 100. If you recognize you have been 100 before and you can get there again or that others similar to you have reached 100 and you can too, then you just have to keep doing whatever makes you feel like the best you and the rest will follow.
Abilities Dance is a nonprofit organization. How can people donate and support the company?
abilitiesdanceboston.org/donate is the best place to find out all the ways to donate. Check out the Instagram @abilitiesdanceboston to stay up to date and come to our shows (like our annual show March 22nd at the Multicultural Arts Center in Cambridge, MA). Follow us, reach out to us, and further our mission in your own networks!