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DVP Interview: Bonnie Lewkowicz and Judith Smith

Bonnie Lewkowicz interviewed Judith Smith. for the Disability Visibility Project™ at StoryCorps San Francisco on September 6, 2014. In this clip, Bonnie Lewkowicz talks with Judith Smith about the creation of AXIS Dance Company, a contemporary dance company specializing in integrated work with dancers of all abilities. Judith and Bonnie talk about the social and political implications of doing this type of dance. Both discuss the challenges of traveling by strange and sometimes inaccessible means with the company for shows abroad. Both describe their work as a passion and activism. Bonnie and Judith share moments of impact both for them and audience members in creating and viewing their integrated dances.

Text Transcript:

[Instrumental music – dancie, bright tone with a peppy drumbeat]

Judith Smith: Bonnie and I both have had the experience of having somebody say, “Well Bonnie what do you do?” and Bonnie says…

Bonnie Lewkowicz: Well, I dance, and then

Judith Smith: They say…. “you can walk!”

Bonnie Lewkowicz: “Oh so you get out of your chair?” Or it’s the deer in the headlights like, um…

Judith Smith: Yeah, the mind kinda goes blank, you know, so um…

Bonnie Lewkowicz: Remember that…

Both in unison: flight attendant

Bonnie Lewkowicz: We were on the jet way

Judith Smith: in San Jose going to Boston

Bonnie Lewkowicz: and she asked, “oh what are you going to a conference or something?” and we said no we’re dancers, we’re going to a performance and she just started laughing.

Judith Smith: she started laughing hysterically

Bonnie Lewkowicz: “no no no, really what are you doing?”

Judith Smith: We’re a dance company

[Instrumental music – dancie, bright tone with a peppy drumbeat]

Bonnie Lewkowicz: When we first got together, of course it wasn’t to create a dance company but it was just to explore.

Judith Smith: And to make one dance piece.

Bonnie Lewkowicz: And to make a particular dance piece.

Judith Smith: Mm hmm

Bonnie Lewkowicz: You know, in the beginning years were people giving us a standing ovation because what they saw was really great or was it because oh look at those brave people up there. I could never get up on stage and do that if I looked like them. And so, you know, that was a big question I think that ran through our minds for a few years. And I think we decided that it was we were creating good art. I think that was always the focus of AXIS, it was never to go out and make any kind of statement, political statement, but just the fact of who we were and what our makeup was, people with and without disabilities it… it made a statement without hammering it over people’s heads.

Judith Smith: Yeah, I think it didn’t really occur to us that there was a social, political implication to what we were doing until we started doing it. And the dance community really loved what we were doing right away and so did the disability community and the reason we kept going was because people kept asking us to make work.

[Instrumental music – guitar plucking, energetic, up beat, happy tone]

Bonnie Lewkowicz: I’ll never forget the story about you in Germany.

Judith Smith: You know, we were at the University of Cologne, and um… we were getting ready for a dance performance and Thais and I, Thais Mazur was our first artistic director who actually started the company. We had this closet to change in because the dressing rooms weren’t accessible. And we went in and turned on the light and closed the door and turned around and there was this skeleton hanging in the corner and the door locked. [both laughing] We were stuck in Germany in a broom closet with a skeleton. [more laughter] We did bang loud enough that somebody… they let us out but yeah that was a little bit of a scene.

Bonnie Lewkowicz: I think we have lots of those stories.

Judith Smith: yes.

Bonnie Lewkowicz: Another one of my favorites was Siberia. That was such a surreal experience after flying for 36 hours.

Judith Smith: Yeah, we got separated from our non-disabled dancers, um.

Bonnie Lewkowicz: Plus our passports taken.

Judith Smith: And our passports taken and…we got…

Bonnie Lewkowicz: and our interpreter taken…

Judith Smith: And we got taken into this room with this big Russian nurse because disability is equated to being unhealthy in Russia. And, um, we’re in these like… we weren’t even in our wheelchairs. We were in those aisle chair things. And they start rolling us across the tarmac and we’re getting chased by feral dogs. And then they roll us to this plane and we’re just hoping to God that it’s the right plane to get from Moscow to Siberia to Novosibirsk. And they pick us up and they toss us to somebody else and he runs up the stairs and tosses us to another person [laughter] who tosses us in our seat. Oh my God it was so hysterical! We’re laughing our heads off and we’re like sprawled in these seats…

Bonnie Lewkowicz: With no one else on the plane…

Judith Smith: With no one else on the plane.

Bonnie Lewkowicz: Not even any stewardesses.

Judith Smith: And we don’t even know if we’re on the right plane.

Bonnie Lewkowicz: And we waited for probably about…

Judith Smith: oh…

Both: a half hour…

Judith Smith: or so…

Bonnie Lewkowicz: And who pulls us in a Mercedes truck… the rest of the passengers.

Judith Smith: All of the rest of the passengers.

[Instrumental music – dancie, bright tone with a peppy drumbeat]

Bonnie Lewkowicz: Our beginning stages some people would call what we were doing therapy. What do we call this work? And… I don’t know, do you think there is still some… are you satisfied with the term that AXIS came up with…

Judith Smith: Well, you know we…

Bonnie Lewkowicz: Physically integrated dance?

Judith Smith: Well, we didn’t, that kinda, that term physically integrated dance came out of the UK. You know, the way we describe ourselves now. We’re a contemporary dance company doing physically integrated work. It occurred to me that I didn’t want to use the work adapting anymore. That I wanted to change that paradigm and start calling what we did translating movement because it’s not just the disabled dancers learning non-disabled movement. It’s the non-disabled dancers who have to translate what we do too. So I felt like that was so much, um… it leveled the playing field a lot for me. And it put the onus on all of us instead on just the disabled dancers to you know… go in the corner and figure it out.

Judith Smith: As a disabled dancer, it’s still not that easy to go out into the community and take dance. You know, the less disabled you are, the easier it is. Um, but when you have a really significant disability like Bonnie and I do, most teachers just kinda…

Bonnie Lewkowicz: ‘what do we do with them?!’ [imitating the dance teachers]

Judith Smith: Wanna run screaming out the back door. So the more people that we bring in to work with us, the more people that aren’t going to be freaked out if someone shows up in their class or you know, in an audition.

[Instrumental music – three repetitive guitar chords and strong drum down beat, anticipatory tone]

Music Credits: (“Lovely, Lonely, Instrument” by YEYEY, “Quand Le Dsrt Recule” by Guili Guili Goulag, and “Raiz Latina” by Chicken Jones.) Music under a Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 International License.



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Suggested Reference

Disability Visibility Project™. ( March 31, 2017 ). DVP Interview: Bonnie Lewkowicz and Judith Smith. Retrieved from:

Image Description:

A photo featuring Bonnie Lewkowicz and Judith Smith was taken on September 6, 2014: Close up portrait of two women sitting side by side in their wheelchairs outside the StoryCorps Booth, in front of a silver StoryBooth exterior wall. The woman on the left, Bonnie, has brown eyes and gray hair with shorter bangs and sides cropped just below her ears. Bonnie smiles at the camera and has her left arms leaning on the right armrest of Judith’s wheelchair. Bonnie appears to be white and is wearing an orange shirt with an open gray sweater, along with a black string necklace with a vertical rectangular pendant. The woman on the right, Judith, has blue eyes and long gray hair that reaches to her shoulders. Judith smiles at the camera and has both her hands folded in her lap. Judith appears to be white and is wearing a turquoise AXIS t-shirt and black pants.


Produced for the Disability Visibility Project™ by Yosmay del Mazo and Alice Wong with interviews recorded by StoryCorps, a national nonprofit whose mission is to provide Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share, and preserve the story of our lives. For more: and

For any questions, please refer to the Terms of Use.

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