Dancer Rae Classen has opened her eyes to a whole new genre of art since she joined the Unmute Dance Company two years ago.
Based at the Artscape Theatre, the company includes artists with mixed abilities or disabilities.
“It was the first time I had worked with people with mixed abilities. It was a big transition because I wasn’t trained at all. The first week I danced with someone with a wheelchair, and I was so scared I was going to hurt them or have trouble because the wheelchair was heavy, and the advice I got was, ‘Don’t think of it as a disability; think of it as part of their body, because the wheelchair is their legs,’ and I think that stuck.”
Rae grew up in Lansdowne and has been dancing since she was six years old.
“I’ve always danced as a hobby – it was never something I thought I would make a career out of.”
Over the years, Rae has learnt several styles of dance, including ballroom, contemporary, cabaret, modern and hip hop.
“When I reached matric, I quit dancing for a while to focus on my schooling. I went to university to study psychology, but I only did that for a year. I enjoyed it, and I was good at it, but I could feel it wasn’t right for me.”
Much to the dismay of her mother, who thought she needed to do something more constructive with her life, she applied at UCT Dance School.
“It was very nerve-racking because it was all or nothing. I knew if I wasn’t going to make it, I had to go back to psychology, but I was accepted.”
She went on to obtain her qualification as a dance teacher, and then heard of a training programme at Unmute Dance Company.
“UCT Dance School said I had to choose between the training or staying at UCT, but they eventually gave me the opportunity to go and complete my studies. I had a good track record; I was a good student.”
After Rae completed her studies and the training programme, she was offered a permanent position at the Unmute Dance Company.
“It was a challenge, but I’ve became sensitive to people with disabilities, not in the sense that I feel pity for them, but to have a mutual understanding because people with disabilities can do everything for themselves.”
She said that in Cape Town people don’t often see many people with mixed abilities, or they are not fully socially accepted, so to see the strength of people with disabilities is inspiring.
And this is the theme of the first festival that Rae has managed in her career – The ArtAbility Festival, a five-day festival at the Artscape for people with mixed abilities.
“This is an annual event, but this is the biggest one yet. I’ve been on the project for three months, and it has been a huge learning curve for me. I’m used to just performing, now I’m doing more arts administration, but I enjoy it – plus I get to perform at the festival as well.”
This year will feature international guests and schools with pupils with mixed abilities that Unmute done outreach to.
“At Unmute we try to give pupils and disabled people a platform to perform, and especially at this festival, because this one is for everyone – abled or mixed abled.”
She said despite the city being the business hub of Cape Town, moving around the city centre is difficult for a person with a disability because there is no accessibility.
“The only places I can think of are the vicinities of the MyCiTi stops and stations and the Artscape.
“Public transport, such as buses and taxis, is still not accessible, as well as roads.
“When I am walking with my colleague who is in a wheelchair, people still look at us like they pity her. It doesn’t have to be like that.”
Rae said disabled parking is also insufficient, as the bays are too small, and parking guards are not educated when it comes to disability.
But besides that, Rae enjoys the city centre.
“I love the diversity here, and it’s really becoming a space for art.
“It’s opening up with initiatives such as First Thursdays and Open Streets, so it’s a good place for an artist to be. There’s also good food everywhere.”
The ArtAbility Festival is at the Artscape from Wednesday November 20 until Saturday December 2. Visit www.artscape.co.za for more information.