An Introduction: Defining and Understanding Neurodivergence and Neurodiversity in Partner Dancing
“I love dancing,” An autistic friend said to me, looking over my shoulder instead of into my eyes. Indirect eye contact was more comfortable and safe. We visually mapped the swaying silhouettes of other dancers navigating the dance floor together. “It has a set of social rules that make sense and people actually follow. It frees me to trust more than I would in any other social setting.”
Navigating the social scene of the Fusion Partner Dance community during my first year, I found myself drawn to a particular group of dancers. These dancers have thought processes, communication styles, value systems, and ways of interacting that resonate with mine. Many of them deeply value a sense of safety (as it is often a rare thing to find), and the safety of everyone in attendance. They have unique perspectives and ways of relating, connecting, and communicating.
Neurodivergence varies endlessly in its presentation from person to person. There is no one sign that will tell you someone is neurodivergent. It is often invisible from the outside. Some of the ways some neurodivergent dancers build connection may include in-depth insights into technique and body mechanics. Others will talk with you for hours on the nuances of consent culture. If you ask for feedback, these dancers will likely give you honest and direct answers (sometimes misinterpreted as rude but it is rarely the intent). Occasionally, an exuberant dancer may throw their arms up in the air and scream “YEASSSSSS,” to their favorite song the DJ just dropped. Some will hyper-vigilantly take on responsibility for the safety of every dancer and will report infractions to event organizers.
These dancers don’t generally stand around the snack table and make small talk. They congregate underneath the snack table, sitting huddled together as they watch the dance floor and geek out about their passions. They may ask others verbally if they want to dance, without making eye contact and without expecting anyone to read body language. Some may carefully manage their social engagement. Perhaps they are more comfortable standing quietly on the outskirts. They may need time and space to manage their sensory experience and/or gather the capacity for social engagement. These are the dancers who understand me. We are the neurodivergent dancers.
I’ve noticed in our Fusion Partner Dance communities there is often a carefully cultivated awareness and acceptance that is continuing to evolve around consent, the spectrum of gender identity, sexual orientation, and racial diversity. I acknowledge that there is so much more work for all of us to do in fostering a deeper acceptance and understanding of these areas and issues; work which must continue to occur. My hope (and inspiration for writing this series) is to also shed light onto neurodivergent dancers as a marginalized minority group for which there is still a lot of ignorance, unawareness, and lack of acceptance. I've also started offering consulting services and resources for improving neurodivergent inclusion at www.sensoryschool.org and I created a Facebook Page for Understanding Neurodivergent Partner Dancers which I invite you to explore on your journey of increasing acceptance.
Neurodiversity is the natural variation of neurological wiring and neurocognitive functioning which inherently exists within a group of people. An individual person whose nervous system processes deviate from the societal definition of "normal" is neurodivergent. When a person is neurodivergent some of the systems governed by the brain, spinal cord, and neurological wiring may transmit and process information differently. This includes language processes, the means and styles of communication and social connection, emotional regulation, neurological arousal, stress and self-protective responses (fight, flight, freeze, and faun), the sensory system encompassing the eight senses (touch, hearing, sight, smell, taste, proprioception, vestibular, and interoception), and more.
The neurological system directly impacts how one person relates and connects with another person. As a metaphor, if you imagine different computer operating systems representing different neuro-types (such as iOS, Windows, or Linux) you might see that while all these operating systems perform similar basic functions, they have fundamentally different user interfaces and methods of storing, organizing, and presenting information. One must learn the nuances and differences between these systems in order to interface across them. Miscommunication is a common struggle between neurodivergent and neurotypical people because different neurotypes communicate using different assumptions and protocols. Because there are fundamental wiring differences, our Neurodiverse brains and bodies each work uniquely, and therefore output and input different styles of communication.
Many brain differences that were historically and culturally dismissed or mocked as “made up” are now observable and verifiable with modern brain imaging technology. These wiring differences result in variations of processing and responses to stimulus. Many of society’s labels and diagnoses focus on pathologizing people by assuming they need to be fixed or cured, instead of accepting the strengths and challenges that arise from naturally occurring variations. People who are Neurodivergent may or may not have accompanying disabilities. Being Neurodivergent does not necessarily mean one is disabled.
Some of the common names you may recognize encompassed by Neurodivergence include (but aren't limited to): giftedness, sensory processing disorder (SPD), autism spectrum, dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, attention deficit disorder (ADD), attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD), Tourette syndrome, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), dyspraxia, and many equally meaningful others that all have a neurological basis. While each label has differing and complex manifestations, many neurodivergent people have similar needs and traits because neurodivergence includes variations in the neural pathway structure itself and how signals are transmitted through that neural structure.
Because of the variations in brain structure and signal processing Neurodivergent dancers have unique talents, perspectives, and ways of communicating. Often the diagnosis of Neurodivergence focuses on shortcomings, but newer studies are finally starting to focus on strengths. These strengths include increased sensory perceptions, heightened creative, artistic, and musical talents, and enhanced abilities in observing details, patterns and variations, and more. These are all attributes that enrich our dance community.
Dance also provides a container with clear expectations and codes of conduct for social and physical engagement. This is important to Neurodivergent people because, for many of us, knowing what to expect feels much safer than open ended and unpredictable social situations. I believe partner dance attracts a larger proportion of neurodivergent people than many other physical social activities because there are clearly articulated rules, boundaries, and codes of conduct for keeping each other safe. Even in this somewhat safer space, harm often occurs because neurodivergence is invisible and missed, glazed over, or invalidated by people who don’t understand and don’t accept us for who we are. It is vital for the vibrancy of the partner dance world, and the well being of neurodivergent dancers, for us to work together for better inclusion and acceptance. By creating mutually beneficial relationships where difference is welcomed and accepted, we will create an enriched dance environment where we all thrive.
Throughout this series I invite exploration in how to think about and create a sense of safety, and ways to build trust and understanding with neurodivergent people attending dance events. I’m passionate about fostering skills for building human connection through the lens of neurodivergence because my life is rich with neurodiversity. Being neurodivergent means so much to who I am and the people I love. I know firsthand that safety and trust are rare experiences when the society we live in often invalidates and ostracizes our experiences because they are different.
The neurodivergent are a part of our community whose needs for connection and inclusivity could be better understood and met. This series, Creating Safer Events and Spaces for Neurodivergent Dancers, offers education and tools to foster a deeper acceptance of neurodivergent dancers. I hope to support the creation of more neuroinclusive events and spaces. Welcome in exploring the intersection of partner dancing and neurodivergence, so that all of us can show up more authentically and enhance each other’s experiences in dance.
In the next part of this series (to be released within the next month) I'll offer “The Eight Senses and Sensory Processing Differences” within the context of partner dancing.