“The fact that my body fits only in the frame of contemporary dance does not limit me, it sets me free”.
Interview: Natalia Fiszka
An artist, presenter and filmmaker, Kathleen Hawkins, shared her story of becoming a professional dancer after a seven-year break.
Natalia Fiszka: You love dance above all. When did you start dancing?
Kat Hawkins: I was always a very physically active child. I did gymnastics even before I picked up dancing at five. First came Irish dance with its powerful energy and I got hooked. When I close my eyes I can still feel the atmosphere of those dance classes. The way I could feel the music in my body. Descartes wrote that the “human body is a machine whose movements are directed by the soul” and the intricacies of how this machine works intrigued my from the start. In dance I think it’s really important that you enjoy what you’re doing, otherwise what is the point. Irish dancing began to make me feel anxious, and my mum noticed this and we began looking at other options. As a result, I went to a traditional dance school, where we did all the classics: ballet, contemporary tap and modern dance. At about 15 I became an associate at an academy in London and I travelled there once a month. Looking back I knew I wanted to be a dancer. It was the thing I loved most, but it’s a hard job to have a successful career in and my parents wanted me to go to university instead. I carried on dancing while I was at university, and joined an amazing dance society called Dance Expose, so dance was very much still a part of my life.
NF: Now that you know how demanding dance training can be, would you send your child to a ballet school?
KH: (Hesitation) If they really wanted to, then of course I would. However, I’d prefer their motivation to be about learning a language to express themselves. Dance, like other art forms, is a language through which we communicate ideas and feelings. I wouldn’t like them to become over competitive or, worse, too critical of themselves. To me, dance is meant to liberate and not restrict. But you obviously need self-discipline if you would like to become any good. It’s about keeping balance between your ambitions and what you enjoy.
NF: At the time you were cooperating with Dance Expose, you got ill which made you stop dancing for about seven years. What happened?
KH: One night after a rehearsal for a big show I came home and I felt really ill and ended up being rushed into a hospital and placed under life support. The supposed flu turned out to be meningococcal septicaemia. Two months into my hospital stay I was told I would have to have both of my legs amputated due to complications. The only thing that was on my mind at that moment was dance or rather the fact that I would never be able to dance again. I didn’t know anything about prosthetic legs at that time. I had no clue if I’d ever walk again. It hit me really hard that my dream of becoming a professional dancer would never come true. I remember one of physiotherapists telling me that I’d surely be able to dance at some point. That she’d seen amputees dancing at a club. Needless to say how I felt about that comment. This was really far from what I knew dance to be for me. Don’t get me wrong, dancing at a club is an incredible experience of inclusion, enjoyment, music and body, but the dance I wanted to do was very different. It’s not the same expression, movement, fast pace and body awareness I strove for. So I pushed dance away and I focused on studying.
NF: Tell me more about the illness and how you got it.
KH: Well, doctors don’t know how exactly I became ill. Meningococcal disease is an uncommon, but serious infection that includes meningococcal meningitis (commonly referred to as meningitis). Meningitis is caused by the bacteria neisseria meningitidis and is contagious. About 10% of adults carry that bacteria in the back of their nose and throat but some, for whatever reason, develop meningitis, septicaemia, or both, because of it. In my case it was meningococcal septicaemia, which means blood poisoning. Septicaemia can kill you within hours. I suffered a multiple organ failure and was put into medically-induced coma for about three weeks. I spent my nineteenth birthday in intensive care. Before all this happened I felt I was in a really lucky position: nineteen-year old just about to start my adult life and the dance career I dreamt of. When I woke up from coma, I realised I wasn’t so lucky anymore.
The good news is that since 2014 you can get vaccinated not only against meningitis ACWY, but also meningitis B.
NF: How did your life change after you were discharged?
KH: I stayed at the hospital for about three and a half months and after that I had to go back about three times a week for three-four months. Which is obviously putting physical limitations on you but also affects the way you see yourself: in a purely functional way. This is what you have to achieve. And we assist you in doing that. Your dreams and aspirations don’t really exist in this context. I think I set myself really small targets. I went back to university because I wanted that independence back. I learnt to walk because I wanted to be at least a little bit autonomous. And then it has been through dance that I really begun to figure out how to build that physical strength that can carry me towards the place I want to be in.
NF: We can’t even remember how we learnt walking. You had to do it twice in your lifetime. How long did it take you to learn walking again?
KH: It was a quick process probably because I was a dancer and, as a consequence, my balance and fitness were good. I came out of a hospital in March and I was walking again by June. Badly and it caused me a lot of pain but I could walk.
What was interesting to me was breaking down what exactly went into walking. I realised how important feet and the bottom parts of my legs were. I got them replaced with metal and plastic bits, which made the whole walking process so different.
NF: Losing limbs is an extreme experience for anyone but especially for a young woman. How do you think it affected you and your career path?
KH: Generally speaking, the switch from teens to twenties is quite dramatic. As I said, I was only nineteen when I got ill and I think I’d still be the person I am today, even if I hadn’t gotten septicaemia. However, the near death experience and becoming a double amputee certainly altered or rather crystallised my focus area as a journalist and filmmaker. I’m constantly seeking out stories of people who can’t tell their own stories. Becoming disabled gave me more empathy, I felt connected to communities that are ever-silenced or not heard. Being a member of a marginalised group, as handicapped are often referred to, made me care about diversity, especially in a work environment. I’d love to bring about change in this field.
In terms of dance, becoming a double amputee changed everything. Today my body fits only in the frame of contemporary dance. But surprisingly this does not limit me, contrary, it sets me free. With this particular genre being open to the point that there’re basically no rules, I feel my true self. I came to realise that the only rigid frames there are, are the frames of my own mind. In dance, the more you practice, the more capable dancer you become, and the more flexible the frames are.
NF: I think it’s incredible that you decided to go back to dancing. There’s lots of people with disabilities who put their lives and dreams aside because obstacles are too many. When I think about you, I’m most amazed by the fact that you had a seven-year break but you eventually decided to continue dancing. What keeps you going?
KH: It’s a constant struggle. The fact that I went back to dance doesn’t mean that I’m loving it. Dancing as an amputee is painful. You try and you fail. And then you try again. I always tell myself that failure doesn’t exist. After so many years of obeying rules and striving for perfection, I finally see that there’s beauty in imperfection. But I obviously have my doubts every now and then when ask myself: Is this what you really want?
NF: Is this what you want, Kat?
KH: To be honest with you, all I want is to join in and dance. My body has quite a visceral reaction to dance. My every single muscle longs for movement when I see people dancing. This is what keeps me going.
NF: Dance Expose asked you to do choreography for them shortly after you were discharged from the hospital. How long have you been an amputee for when they wanted to get you on board again?
KH: I was an amputee for about 7-8 months at that time and I wanted badly to work with them again. However, when it came down to it, I just couldn’t do it. It was physically too hard at that stage. I was only learning to be an amputee. I was still struggling with learning to walk so you can imagine how out of tune I was with my body. And that was a really important aspect of dance for me: being 100% capable.
This was a hell of a confusing period, both physically and mentally, and I ended up rejecting the offer. I’d have those dreams that I was dancing and then I’d wake up and try to stand on my legs and fall because I’d realise I was still an amputee. I made myself forget about dance for years, because it was too tough to even think about it.
NF: How did you find strength in getting yourself out on stage again?
KH: Seven years after I lost my legs I found a contemporary dance company called Candoco. This amazing crowd has room both for disabled and non-disabled dancers, which made it appealing to me. The way they think about dance and human body was exactly what I needed so I went to an audition about four years ago. This first real contact with the world of dance after a 7-year break was brutal. I was not prepared in any way for that day. It was a strenuous fit for me. I wasn’t able to walk in my prosthetics after that. However, being in a dance space again gave me a buzz. It always intrigued me how different spaces affect the way we are and interact using the resources that we have at hand. Dance spaces are unique in this sense. When you walk into a dance studio, you immediately know where you are. People do things they don’t do outside of that space. I got hooked again and went to a summer lab with them, then a class, and finally came my first performance. We were as many as 20 different dancers in an exhibition space, where prosthetic legs and accessibility devices were displayed. We were connected: the inanimate and animated elements of this space. The performance went great and I continued working with them.
NF: A few days ago in Poland, where I come from, a 40-day-long strike of disabled people and their families came to an end. They don’t get enough support from the state. I was wondering how does it look in the UK? Are you in the safe zone as a disabled person?
KH: The scope of disability can vary a lot, so do benefits and medical care. It all depends on how disabled one is. The situation is not great as some disabled people have to travel long distances in order to get their treatment but we do get benefits. Although the benefit rules became more strict over the past few years. There’s a lot more emphasis on having to prove how disabled you are and that is hard. You have to go to an assessment and show how complex your disability is and how bad it can get. If you’re not having a particularly bad day, it might mean that you won’t be granted the desired benefit. At the same time I must say that I feel very fortunate as I got my prosthetics for free. It’s important to recognise that we don’t have the worst conditions here in the UK, although I do feel that medical care should also mean psychological help as becoming handicapped can cause a severe mental trauma.
I have a number of amputee friends in the US who can’t even count on physical medical treatment and they face serious financial difficulties. Silicone liners, for instance, that go over your stomp and slump into your prosthetic leg, which makes wearing prosthetics less painful, wear off quickly. Many disabled Americans can’t afford those so they either live in extreme pain or they are not able to wear their prosthetics at all.
NF: After five years in Scandinavia, I must admit that Polish cities are not quite fit for disabled people. It’s virtually impossible for a person in a wheel chair to go out in town alone. I’m afraid they spent most of the time at home.
KH: And the worst thing is that it has nothing to do with them. It’s not the disabled that wish to stay home, the physical world many societies built is not made for disabled people, who constitute a big percentage of worlds population. It is the world that pushes us into the place we are in. We’re often being seen as lesser. We’re restrained: physically disabled, confined by the society, and limited by our own minds. We’re being put and we put ourselves in certain frames. In order to bring about change we need representation on all levels and to achieve that, we need to change our mindset and stop seeing ourselves as lesser, which is tough. Disabled people need to feel empowered that they can get to the top. I’ve experienced discrimination at work place due to my disability. Finding yourself standing there against the whole system is overwhelming and it gets to you. You come to realise that there are thousands of individuals who make choices every day and they often choose to discriminate the disabled, the pregnant or people of colour. These people make a system. A system that is very hard to fight against because it means that as an individual you have to put yourself in a vulnerable position and resist the opponent that you know is much more powerful. Being a spokesperson for a marginalised group means that you have to get to all these individuals and make them understand your standpoint as disabled, women, etc. And why should they hear you? Most of the time it is simply inconvenient. Nevertheless, it is essential that someone has the guts to do it. At the same time I understand when people don’t want to expose themselves. It hurts. It took me years to start posting pictures of myself. It took me years to show off my legs. Many are surprised how confident I seem to be. Sometimes I forget how long it took me to start showing my legs. I wore trousers for years and I was determined to make my prosthetic legs look as “natural” as possible, which seemed ridiculous later on as prosthetic legs look the way they look because they are prosthetic legs. Great numbers of amputees got in touch with me and told me that it was very encouraging for them to see that you don’t have to be ashamed of not having limbs. It is heart-warming. I didn’t have anybody to guide me through that difficult period when a nineteen-year-old me was laying at the hospital trying to make something of this whole situation. Finally, I’m at this stage when I like the way I look, I accept who I am. It was a long and necessary journey for me and I hope that me being open will help other people get to this stage as well.
NF: Do you speak about these problems as a journalist? Was this one of the reasons why you chose the profession in the first place?
KH: I do speak up about these problems but it was not the direct reason I became a journalist. When I decided that I wouldn’t pursue dance career, I went to university and picked up English and Religious Studies. So I got myself a degree in Religion and Public Life. I focused on fighting islamophobia in the British media. I became a journalist because I believed I could make a change. After graduating from University of Leeds, I gained a place on the BBC’s Journalism Trainee Scheme in 2013. BBC is an institution. They provide you with a proper training and give you tools to do a good job. I stayed with them for many years and only stopped a few months ago to focus on projects that are more personal for me. In terms of filmmaking I direct and write scripts for short films. I explore the feeling of displacement in one’s own body in these productions.
NF: You said that putting yourself in the spotlight can be hard. Why do you think it’s important for you to put yourself in that vulnerable position and discuss disability?
KH: I simply want to tame “the monster”. Both for the disabled and the non-disabled. There’s no need to be scared of us or swipe us under the carpet. We are here. I recall so many awkward situations when people don’t know how to approach my disability. Like the many times when I walk down the street in a skirt and some guy shouts after me that “he would still make me his girlfriend”. Hands down, first time I heard it, I did not know what I should say to that. I was quite pissed at that person, but today it’s more pity than anger that I feel. Such sentence speaks volumes about our society, the way we are being brought up and explained the world. I understand that people project their negative feelings about disability on me because they assume I feel miserable. And all I’m trying to say is that I’m fine. Nobody should feel bad because of me being a double amputee. I don’t feel bad about it. This is who I am. But I realise that people often see me as a disability and when they do that, they remove all power from me as a person. Like I wasn’t a person anymore. Representations of the disabled tend to revolve around either motivation or pity. I personally think that a lot is lost when you only focus of these two aspects. We are still people and we have interests, feelings, opinions, and beliefs just like everyone else. Stories of how our bodies became impaired are important but they are not the only stories we have to share. I believe that we as a society can do much better.
Kat Hawkins still performs with Candoco. Learn more about Kat and her work here.