Kitty’s Story – The Red Shoes
My story as a dancer began back in New Orleans, Louisiana, when I was eight years old. My grandmother took me to see the film The Red Shoes for my birthday, and I saw that beautiful red-headed ballerina up there on the screen and I said “I want to be her, I want to do that.” And I was fortunate enough to get dance lessons. I had a wonderful teacher, and from a very early age, she identified in me the ability to become a professional dancer. My whole identity growing up as a child, at least from the age of eight until now, is that I Am a Dancer. That is who I am.
When I was 15 years old at the Washington ballet, Agnes deMille came as a guest Artist in Residence. Because your instrument is your body, dancers are always looking in the mirror. You’re obsessed with a body image that is someone else’s image of perfection. As very young, impressionable teenage girls, we were all lamenting – too short, too tall, too heavy, too thin, whatever. We all wanted to be something other than what we were. I was short. On a good day, standing on pointe, I was 5’4”. I used to fantasize about having a bone transplant in my legs to make them longer. When I said this, Miss deMille came over to me, took my face in her hands, and said “Kitty dear, you have to learn to dance in the body you have.” I had no idea what she meant. I just filed it away.
In December 1986, Mother Teresa had come to New York [and I had the opportunity to meet her]. She came over to me – she was this little, tiny, wizened woman, with the most piercing blue eyes I have ever seen. Very calmly, she looked at me and said softly, “My dear, I do not think you are living the life you were born to live.”
A month later, I slipped on ice, fell down the stairs and broke my back.
Finding her way
I was in the hospital for almost three years – I certainly thought my dancing days were over. What that accident did was strip away my identity. I didn’t know who I was. There were other things going on too. I met my husband a month before I had this accident. I was in the hospital for almost three years – our whole courtship took place in the hospital and we were married six months after I got out. It was my husband, Andrew, who said, “If you want to dance, what’s stopping you?” I had to be honest – I was stopping me, fear was stopping me. I had never seen anyone dancing in a wheelchair.
I had a brilliant physiotherapist who had been a dancer prior to becoming a physical therapist. So we instantly had a common vocabulary. We also had this unspoken acknowledgment that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity for the both of us. She presented the wheelchair to me as my ticket to freedom and independence. She said, “You have a life out there. No one is going to go and get it and bring it to you. You have to go out and get it yourself.”
In fear and trembling, my physical therapist and I set a target date, and I went to an open ballet class. They could not refuse me, I had the law behind me – the newly passed Americans with Disabilities Act – and I rolled into the studio. People looked at me as if I had lost my mind. Two world-class ballet dancers: Vladimir Malakhov and Paloma Herrera were in the class, and they made a place for me at the bar.
Infinity Dance Theater
I started Infinity Dance Theater in 1995. I teach in a very mainstream way the technique of classical ballet and modern dance for students using wheelchairs who want to dance. I work with people with Parkinson’s disease, MS, post-polio syndrome, spinal cord injury, cerebral palsy and spina bifida. But what I really am is a gardener – I plant seeds.
A lot of the ideas for my choreography are given to me in meditation. I was given this idea about the Women’s Stories Project – with six women, all having had a life-altering experience. All have used music, movement and dance as part of their journey to the other side – to their healing side. Each woman wrote her story, I choreographed a solo for each of them, and during the performance, a narrator will read the story while the woman is dancing to selected music. After the last woman has done her solo, I’m creating a weave dance where all of the women will dance together – weaving the common threads of their lives. Because we are All Women. We are Every Woman.
I believe I am called to teach people that disability does not signify inability, and I do that through the art form of dance. I teach the students to give themselves permission to move in a way that they never thought was possible.
Give yourself permission, no matter where you are or what’s going on. Give yourself permission in life to try something different. Life is messy, life is difficult. But it’s in the struggle that we learn who we really are.
Kitty Lunn is the Founder and Artistic Director Of Infinity Dance Theater in New York City, and has been a dancer for more than 50 years. At the age of 15, Kitty was dancing principal roles with the New Orleans Civic Ballet, and then earned a scholarship to the Washington Ballet. She studied and worked with dance legends such as Mary Day, Edward Caton, Martha Graham, and Agnes DeMille. While preparing for her first Broadway show in 1987, Kitty slipped on ice, fell down a flight of stairs and broke her back. Now a paraplegic, she uses a wheelchair and works diligently on behalf of performing artists with disabilities.
Infinity Dance Theater is a non-traditional dance company featuring dancers with and without disabilities. The company performs all over the world doing dance and educational programs for dancers and teachers to bring the joy and drama of motion and movement to a new level of inclusion by expanding the boundaries of dance and changing the world's perception of what a dancer is. The Women’s Stories Project will be held at Judson Memorial Church in New York City, November 17 & 18. Please visit Infinity Dance Theater website to find out more about her work.