Inside one of Long Beach State’s dance studios, two dancers gracefully glide across the floor, twirling into a patch of light streaming in through the studio windows. A piano track delicately floats over the duo as they fill the vast space with fluid movement. The woman settles into her partner’s strong, steel frame as they perform a pas de deux.
Leaning against her partner for support, she extends into an arabesque, lifting her leg behind her with poise. The pair move in sync with one another. Her long hair sweeps into an arch around them as they whirl across the floor in one smooth maneuver.
The music swells into a crescendo. Wheels squeak to a stop as the two come to an abrupt halt. The piece reaches its finale.
Vanessa Cruz and her purple walker, whom she earnestly named Pluto, have been dance partners throughout her entire life. Cruz was born with arthrogryposis, a condition characterized by multiple joint contractures and muscle weakness throughout the body. For Cruz, it simply means that she can’t bend her knees and relies on leg braces to help her stand upright.
Cruz’s interest in dance began in the fourth grade after watching what she describes as a rated-PG belly dancing performance to Shakira’s “Eyes Like Yours.”
“I kinda knew at that point I wanted to be on stage, but training to be a dancer, especially as a disabled dancer, is really hard when you’re young because there isn’t a lot of accessibility,” Cruz said.
Nevertheless, she carried on performing on a dance team for all four years in high school.
Cruz’s dance journey continued in community college, taking a pause when she pursued medicine for her first two years. But perhaps the biggest detour was her parents’ divorce during her first year, which prompted Cruz to find a job to support her mother, her sister and herself.
Even so, Cruz had something in her life that she could consistently count on.
“I sought out dance,” Cruz said. “It was a way to alleviate stress for me.”
Cruz performed with her community college’s dance team and began to notice her focus shift from anatomy classes and the periodic table to pep rally dance performances and her jazz dance ensemble. After dispassionately trudging toward a degree in medicine for two years, Cruz took the leap and applied to another community college to pursue dance professionally.
“I believe as long as you have the passion to dance you will excel, and that’s what I saw in her… passion,” Cruz’s mother, Maria Silvia, recalled after Cruz revealed that she wanted to pursue dance. “I saw her confidence, and I felt reassured that she will thrive.”
For the first time in her life, Cruz received professional dance training, something she longed to have access to in her youth. Her new community college boasted a rigorous dance curriculum that allowed Cruz to build a strong foundation in dance.
“I became more in tune with my body and started figuring out how to work in a safer way with my body instead of just throwing myself out there,” Cruz said. “It was a super important foundation for me.”
Cruz’s journey hit a bump in the road after a meeting with two dance instructors and the college’s chair of disabled student services.
The meeting in question was prompted after one of her instructors reached out to Cruz to discuss how she should be graded in class due to what the instructor felt was Cruz’s failure to meet class standards.
“You need to be more realistic,” Cruz recalled being told by the DSS chair in that soul-crushing meeting.
The meeting adjourned with recommendations for Cruz to sit out during class to take notes and to complete the courses’ finals with different instructors. Cruz left the meeting stone-faced.
“I couldn’t talk. I just stayed silent,” Cruz remembered, choking through tears. “For the first time ever, I hated dancing. I hated dancing that day.”
The summer that followed is what Cruz looks back on as one of the lowest points of her dance career.
“I didn’t like where my mind was going,” Cruz said. “It was really scary.”
But through it all, Cruz leaned on the same thing she has leaned on countless times in her life: dance. That summer was filled with dance classes, auditions and performances that kept Cruz busy and motivated enough for her to gather the energy and courage to apply to CSULB’s dance program for fall 2018.
“I had a hard time transitioning [to CSULB],” Cruz said. “After the incident, it did put me in reality. There are people that will not see me as a dancer, and I have to be realistic with myself [about] that.”
Now in her second year at CSULB, Cruz has been surprised with the university’s acceptance and accommodation, noting its stark contrast to her previous experience at her community college.
“The biggest difference is that my [community college’s] dance program tolerated me, here, they accept me,” Cruz said. “There’s a huge difference.”
A rekindled love for dance led Cruz to take advantage of more opportunities. Cruz sought out dance intensives and workshops that allowed her to collaborate with other disabled dancers and translate movement for disabled bodies, a skill Cruz said she often has to figure out alone in most dance settings.
“I think Vanessa is one of the few people I know that has this raw talent,” said Mark Travis Rivera, a fellow disabled dancer who has performed with Cruz at a UCLA Disability Dancing Lab. “Oftentimes, disabled people have to rely on raw talent because we don’t have the same access to training or opportunities that nondisabled people have.”
Cruz is currently working on several projects, her most recent one being a contemporary ballet solo she has choreographed for herself to be released as a dance film.
“It is a little scary [calling it a contemporary ballet] because there’s an expectation for how a ballerina should look or how contemporary movement should look like on bodies, so it’s a very vulnerable place to call it a contemporary ballet,” Cruz said.
The piece utilizes fairy tale-like narrative elements common in traditional ballet pieces and explores themes of acceptance. According to Cruz, her motivation to choreograph her own piece was to show people that disabled dancers can be choreographed and integrated in dance pieces.
“There’s so much you can do [with disabled dancers],” Cruz said. “In the dance world we’re used to seeing bodies a certain way that when you start playing with different kinds of bodies that image of how bodies [are supposed to] look like clashes with the creative process.”
Cruz hopes to take her experiences and skill set to one day establish her own ballet conservatory that allows disabled dancers the access to learn dance and repertoire to perform professionally.
“[Dancing] makes me feel free. It’s just kind of having a voice to be heard,” Cruz said. “Just being able to dance and give the audience a taste of the infinite stories that could possibly [be told] if we had more disabled dancers is a gift in itself because I know that I will help at least in some way pave that pathway.”
Watch the video about Vanessa Cruz on the Daily Forty-Niner’s YouTube channel.