STIMMING towards a neurodivergent dance practice | Interview with Susanna Dye

Words by angel dust. Stimming (definition): noun
repetitive actions or movements displayed by neurodivergent people and people with developmental disorders when they are over/ under-stimulated emotionally, or by sensory input from their environment.

Recently I was offered the chance to talk with Susanna Dye, an emerging movement artist based in London who works across dance, theatre and film. Their practice delves into the creative potential of difference and neurodivergence, offering the world pieces of art that have powerful societal resonance.

Over the past couple of years Susanna has been working on STIMMING, a project that explores how sensory input can become an impetus for dance, but also how dance can be a way of processing and self regulating one’s sensory and emotional experiences.

Immersing myself in the digital documentation of the project was as thought-provoking as it was calming. The best way I can visualise STIMMING is in the form of a stellar system, at the core of which is neurodivergence and dancing. Around this fidgety imaginative sensory-seeking star orbit are the different concepts, considerations and outcomes of Susanna’s research and development. These include access needs, advocacy, intersectionality and opening up the work to an audience in its different iterations.

I spoke with Susanna about all these and more on a Monday morning right about when Storm Eunice was dissipating, leaving behind a trail of plant debris inside her house.

AD: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me, Susanna. Where do we begin? STIMMING is a multi-stranded project. You began by producing the videos that went on the Siobhan Davies Studios Web Res 2020 platform. The project then evolved and became part of a residency you did with Shape Arts and The Place.

SD: The Siobhan Davies Studios videos were my first tentative explorations by myself in lockdown in my bedroom. Putting those videos out into the world gave me a sense of what I’d want to do if I gave it a bit more time, space and invited other collaborators on board, which happened in 2021 through a Choreodrome residency at The Place. Shape Arts came into it once the residency was done and we had created all of that material … it kind of became a retrospective commission.

AD: It’s amazing how a lockdown thing ended up becoming something that has taken quite a bit of your time over the past couple of years.

SD: The idea formed before lockdown as I was getting to grips with my diagnosis with dyslexia and dyspraxia. I was questioning how I could approach making dance in a way that doesn’t stigmatise myself as a neurodivergent person who hasn’t felt able to pursue a conservatoire training.

Lockdown was a good environment to step back from the assumptions and expectations I have about what that might look like, to consider an approach informed by the way my body-mind works.

AD: When I was watching the online gallery and videos, the repetitive nature of the movement language alongside the choice to work with pastel pink and orange made me feel like I was experiencing the inside workings of a body. Can you talk to me about how you came to those artistic choices and what are some reflections upon your collaboration with the artist Manon Ouimet?

SD: All of the aesthetic choices were informed by this one question which we kept asking ourselves: “what is going to enable the audience to access the sensory experiences that this work is about?” I think it came from experimenting … this is probably something that Manon can speak more to because I tried as much as possible to focus on what bodies were doing and how it was feeling and a little bit less on what that ended up looking like.

Also the pastel colour palette was informed by the aesthetics of my access needs: if I highlight text or have pastel coloured paper, it makes it much easier for me to read…

The movement vocabulary of stimming movements came from me originally asking the question “how do I make dance in a way that feels safe for me”, in which I am not constantly coming up against the barriers of the culture of the dance industry that emphasises virtuosity and fast making, fast learning – the way that dance interacts with the capitalist values of churning out work quickly. I guess that was the underlying ethos of the movement. I am quite curious about what that means for the audience because the existing culture of dance, the one that is virtuosic and focuses on technique … asks for spectacle.

I remember thinking we are probably not gonna wow anyone with this work, and that’s not the aim. But, maybe we can offer them an experience they can feel and have a sensory response to. Maybe we can offer them something that relates more closely to them and their lived experience of the world and people that they know …

I’ve had a lot of responses from neurodivergent people … responding with delight, saying “this thing that you are showing I know it and it’s really nice to see it” or to be given a language. A lot of people who didn’t identify as neurodivergent still got in touch and were like this reminds me of this thing that I do that I carry a lot of shame about because I always thought it was a bit weird. It was really interesting to have that response again and again from people, people wanting to reach out and saying “I do this thing!”

AD: Thats great, it’s telling you that the work is breaking down barriers that are not visible or solid. You have created something that has opened up a conversation and that’s showing the diversity of the ways people’s minds work…

I really like the idea of your body not serving the audience or anything bigger than what it is feeling in the moment. There is something liberating in making something that is prioritising your own pleasure and hopefully something is going to come across to the audience from that as a starting point.

SD: Pleasure came into it a little bit later, because originally, I am aware that stimming doesn’t always feel good and can relate to experiences of pain as well as pleasure. Stimming movements are movements we do in order to cope with anxiety. With any repetition you reach a point where it stops feeling good. Even if it is the smallest hand movement, your hands start hurting or aching if you are constantly grinding your bones against each other.

In the original set of videos, I was exploring some movements that were definitely not pleasurable to do and I was open to being curious about that because I didn’t want to present this really simplistic view of stimming is great, because to some people stimming is related to their self-harming. So it is really complex and I guess that’s why it is stigmatised…

I wanted to explore the space between stimming and dancing, looking at how dancing can be a sort of stimming. That was when it felt really important to introduce a principle of the practice: to lean in to what feels good, to give ourselves space to notice pain and discomfort as it arises and give ourselves permission to shift away from that.

AD: My next question is how did the dancers that you worked with (Aby Watson and Danni Spooner) shape the way the research developed? What did you find in common and what was different between you?

SD: We validated each other’s experiences and I think that is really important. With neurodivergence the access barriers that we experience are so nuanced and quite hard to articulate and justify. Sometimes I feel like I am not disabled enough to take up space or funding in the disability arts world so it was important for me to create that space and invite Aby and Danni on board to see how much they needed space to experiment with being more fully themselves within a dance process, and to identify and articulate their access needs.

All our needs are very nuanced but the main thing was about the barrier we experience that is around creating work based on how it looks. We felt like we could dismantle that access barrier by focusing instead, on how the movement felt. They also brought in some more intersectional perspectives, for example coming from working class backgrounds… one of the first conversations we had about what can I do to make this process accessible to you, the thing they both said was just “make it joyous!”…

They articulated that there is a culture of formality and seriousness, as soon as you are in a professional art space especially with contemporary dance… and I guess what we focused on was stealing from the Relaxed Performance model that is pioneered by Jess Thom and that is all about giving permission for people to do what they need to do to access the work… it’s all about creating an environment that is less rigid, less formal and has less unspoken etiquette and we were exploring how can we make the making process relaxed.We found that relaxing our process slowed it down, and took the pressure off from this need to race to the finish line of ‘performance’. Instead we gave ourselves permission to focus on celebrating the small achievements and focus on the details.

AD: I like how this translates into the outcome of the residency. When someone visits the online gallery that you’ve created they encounter a series of gifs of short repetitive movements and it feels very fitting to what you just said about detail and small achievements.

SD: That was always my goal from the get go. Originally I thought it would be a live installation. Using videos or gifs take away the big access barriers that I experience, which are memory, sequencing and organisation.

I didn’t want to create work in that traditional performance model for this project because I know as soon as I start doing that I’d have a voice in my head telling me I am not good enough… and I’d be banging against my access barriers the whole time.

Photo credits: Manon Ouimet

AD: The videos sit on the edge of gentleness and intensity at the same time. Can you tell us more about this tension of the “hypo” and the “hyper”, both from your perspective as a neurodivergent person and as a movement artist?

SD: The Social Model of Disability thinking is what has underlined this whole project and what that does is that it flips the narrative: instead of telling individuals that they are ‘not enough’ or they are ‘too much’, it flips the script to focus on how the environment, systems and cultures we are navigating don’t always serve our needs.

The experiencing of feeling ‘too much’ or ‘not enough’ ties in to my relationship with dance. From a very young age movement is how I always related to the world. There was always the sense that I am a tornado of movement… and so dance felt the ideal environment for me. Yet, as soon as I was in a formal environment trying to learn technique and follow sequences I was made to feel this sense of ‘I am too much’/ ‘I am not enough’: too slow a learner, not co-ordinated enough, not able to keep time with the music, too expressive in my facial expressions and vocalisations…

I suppose I am interested in how to create my choreographic practice as a space to just be more me and experience movement, really going into why I am moving and my collaborators.

What I found mesmerising about the WebRes videos is how Susanna focused on a single part of the body or one gesture but that somehow created so many images as the videos progressed. The poetics of inspiring creation from the micro, drawing people and time and money into exploring the personal, ends up having implications on an expanding radius from the starting point of creation.

Susanna explains that she needed to see how a personal investigation could become a process that had an impact on other people and that’s the reason behind developing the project to bring in the perspective of fellow neurodivergent dancers Danni and Aby. STIMMING created a safer space for them to just be themselves while also achieving to re-contextualise an everyday behaviour in order to elevate it, cast a different light to it and then offer it back to the world as something more understandable and relatable by different groups of people. This speaks to the advocacy aspect of Susanna’s work. The project made me realise how certain movements or triggers of movement might be encouraged in a certain context (dance studio) but stigmatised in another. The way that society regulates movement is the way that it also exerts domination over the dissemination of ideas and that’s where dance acquires a political dimension.

I feel like intersectionality is unavoidable … the social model of disability thinking has helped me think about progress for anyone and when you are kind of focusing on thinking what are the barriers here, what are the cultures that are stopping people from being able to be themselves in the space… What I’ve done with this project is I’ve really consciously kept coming back to me and what do I need to be in a dance practice and then I know that if I do that it opens up a conversation that is wider than just me.” – Susanna Dye

STIMMING offers us a new perspective on the intersection between dance art and neurodivergence. This new perspective stems from Susanna’s objection to serving a dance industry that doesn’t serve her back and I think the project derives a lot of its gravity and relevance from that objection. As for the future, there is plenty of possibilities for how this project might evolve. What Susanna is pondering more is messiness in contrast to the so far clean minimalist aesthetic but also inclusivity and increasing permission for anyone to relate to the universality of STIMMING as a movement language. What is clear is that the spaces (whether physical or virtual) Susanna is opening up through her creativity are necessary and her commitment to bringing in a wider variety of bodies and experiences beyond neurodivergence is reflecting her allegiance to intersectional learning as the way forwards.

You can find out more about Susanna on their website and you can watch the WebRes 2020 videos here. Finally you can experience the digital documentation of the residency in this online gallery. This written text was a commission from Shape Arts.