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Mellon Foundation Grants Support the Artistry of Disabled Dance

By Kelly Dawson
July 2024

Dance has always been subjective, but more often than not, there is a typical person who is deemed a dancer. From leaping and lunging to twirling and pop-locking, dance is largely experienced through the lens of a non-disabled body — it’s seen everywhere from social media to big-budget films. 

But just because non-disabled dancers have claimed much of the public image for generations doesn’t mean that disabled dancers don’t exist. In fact, there are many of them awaiting their chance to perform before an audience supportive of their art. 

“There is creative potential in the way that disabled dancers express themselves, and there’s opportunity in treating disabled aesthetics as a genre in and of itself,” says Meera Dugal, a program associate of arts and culture at the Mellon Foundation. 

Artistic expression is a human experience, which is an ethos that the Mellon Foundation has upheld since its founding in 1969. But in recent years, this definition of artistry has finally recognized disability as part of the fold. Since 2019, the Mellon Foundation has made 24 disability-related grants to 19 grantees totaling about $15 million. The funding supports individuals as they develop creative work, start organizations, or build programs that are either wholly experienced by the disabled community or encompassed by inclusivity measures set forth by non-disabled groups. In every case, a disabled person is at the helm. 

“When we brought Kayla Hamilton in as a thought partner and consultant in 2022, she made sure that decisions around grant making were being informed by the disabled dance community,” says Stephanie Ybarra, a program officer of arts and culture. “Through our relationship with Kayla, we have met a number of disabled dancers and have made this grantmaking part of our overall dance portfolio.”

One of the recipients of these grants is Saira Barbaric, who used the funding to launch the Mouthwater Festival in Seattle, Washington. The three-week, disability-centric program encompasses 26 events from September 23 to October 13, and features performances, workshops, and social events. 

While the Mouthwater Festival will showcase talent in the Pacific Northwest, Mellon’s grants are supporting other projects that celebrate disabled dancers throughout the country — like Antoine Hunter of the Urban Jazz Dance Company and Bay Area International Deaf Dance Festival and Ifasina Clear whose work centers wellness for artists across the South.

“Mellon has created a set of tools that allow us to get very specific about how the money will be used,” Ybarra says. “This supports the artist, but it also makes it possible for us to get really involved with the work. I wouldn’t say we check in with recipients as much as we build and sustain relationships with them.”

And through these relationships, artistic communities flourish. “We learned from Kayla to ask, ‘What do you want to manifest for your community?’” Dugal says. “This is a way for disabled artists to have the freedom to create, and there are also programs teaching non-disabled artists how to hold space for their disabled peers. The grants provide breathing room around possibilities, and also teach non-disabled members how to be fluent in accessibility, too.”