Episode 53 Transcript

Published: Thursday June 27, 2024

Meet Kaylee Bays: Wheelchair Ballerina from SYTYCD

Breaking Stereotypes in Dance and Disability


Alycia Anderson: Welcome to Pushing Forward with Alycia, a podcast that gives disability a voice. Each week we will explore topics like confidence, ambition, resilience and finding success against all odds. We are creating a collective community that believes that all things are possible for all people.

Open hearts. Clear paths. Let’s go.

Welcome back to Pushing Forward with Alycia. I’m Alycia Anderson. So I’m going to be a fangirl again on this show. And I want to kind of give a visual picture of the first time that I saw this amazing woman glide her wheelchair across my Instagram.

Her wheelchair was literally gliding. Her leg was in the air. Her toes were pointed, her arms were extended, and she reminded me of a ballerina. My dad was a painter before he passed away, and he went through this phase of painting ballerinas when I was younger. I would watch him paint these beautiful bodies, and I was like, I want to be her. And I would always say in my next life. Fast forward to, I don’t know, six months ago, eight months ago, this beautiful dancer glides through my Instagram and she reminds me of a ballerina that my dad used to paint. What was so cool about it is she’s the representation of a wheelchair dancer, a ballerina body that I always used to dream of that I never ever saw as a little girl.

And she’s here today to share her amazing story. She just made history as the first wheelchair dancer to ever grace the stage of So You Think You Can Dance. Her name is Kaylee Bays. She is mesmerizing audiences with her dance performances. She is gracefully dancing from a seated position to a standing position and everywhere in between. She represents ambulatory wheelchair users that are dancing. She’s breaking down a ton of stereotypes of what a wheelchair user, and I’m going to air quote, is. She’s championing inclusivity and representation in the world of dance and in business and in her advocacy and beyond. Kaylee, welcome to Pushing Forward with Alycia. I’m so thrilled that you said yes.

Kaylee Bays: That introduction kind of knocked the wind out of me. I just want to say how powerful it was listening to you describe the painting of the ballerina and wanting to come back as a ballerina in your next life. Especially when my, because I’ve had symptoms all my life of my condition, but my condition for the most part really took effect when I was 21. Ever since then, I’ve thought about all of the different things that I would want to be in my next life. Because I trained all my life to be a ballerina, I would want to be the ballerina I always wanted to be all my life. For you to have that moment of this ballerina on wheels as possible and to think about having that sort of impact on someone from afar makes me feel like I am living that life now. Sometimes it doesn’t feel real until moments like this. So thank you so, so, so much. That truly knocked the wind out of me.

Alycia Anderson: Yeah, that’s a true story. That’s exactly what made me follow you. You’re just a really beautiful dancer in the space that you are in the way you are. It’s amazing. Can we look in the rearview mirror just a tiny little bit? Can you kind of paint us a little picture? Can you tell us a little bit about your story?

Kaylee Bays: I grew up dancing all my life. I was either in a dance studio, on a horse, or in some sort of musical. I grew up surrounded by the arts. I come from a family of artists. I never really saw myself doing anything else other than dance. When I was 17, I moved from the Bay Area. I grew up in San Jose and I moved from San Jose to LA and I started school at the American Music and Dramatic Academy where I studied musical theater for a whopping year. Then I took a summer, air quote, summer job at Disneyland and I didn’t end up going back to school. I fell in love with my time at Disney and I fell in love with performing in a way that I had never had before. I danced in the parades there. When I worked there before, and I started there in 2015, I was on my feet. I was performing on my feet and I didn’t see my future going anywhere else.

However, as a child, my symptoms started as early as my first dislocation was when I was two and I dislocated my elbow. I had joint symptoms all my life, but my doctors told me from a very young age that it was growing pains. Then it continued on into other things, like I had really severe scoliosis when I was in middle school. That was when I was diagnosed with spina bifida. But spina bifida, they said it wouldn’t ever cause me any problems. They said all of these things wouldn’t ever cause me any problems. I have had fainting episodes since I was really little. I would faint in dance sometimes. Things never were diagnosed on paper or able to be put together by doctors until I was 21.

When I was 21, at the time, I was working for Disney and I had just started working on their media team and started doing the things that I really wanted to do with my time in entertainment at Disney. My goal was to get into a main stage musical there. When I was 21 was when the majority of my symptoms started. I was starting to get joint dislocations while I was performing. I had what I now know was a POTS episode. I fully passed out and had a POTS flare during a parade while I was in the parade. Things like that continued to happen. It got too often and too frequent to where they didn’t tell me that I had to leave, but they were like, you’re going to have another job at Disney until you are able to provide us with an explanation, basically, of what was going on. That was why I started pursuing a diagnosis again as an adult because I had gotten burnt out on it as a teenager.

The first geneticist I saw was able to diagnose me with Ehlers Danlos. That was when I was diagnosed with EDS at 21. At that point, I quit Disney, I quit LA, I moved back to Northern California and I was like, okay, I’m going to teach dance until I can’t. I taught dance from sitting on the ground from a rolling stool up until the lockdown. When the lockdown started, I was so bored at my house that I was dancing on the floor. It was maybe 2021 when I started actually taking it seriously. I got a subscription to online dance classes. I had a full-length mirror and I sat on the ground and I taught myself how to adapt. I didn’t see anyone else that looked like me at the time, so I just sort of kept going. Then it was a year later, I got my chair and then from there, movement was possible in new ways. Then went to my first dance class a couple of months after, and the rest is history. Wow.

Alycia Anderson: Can you maybe describe a little bit about how you’ve adapted the actual physical movements? What are the benefits of using a wheelchair and then standing up and going kind of back and forth and weaving in and out of that?

Kaylee Bays: Totally. This is going to be like a three-part answer because that’s like my favorite question ever and I never get to actually talk about these things. I come from a background of being a professional dancer. When I am in a room with other dancers, I have the foundation from when I was dancing on my feet. It’s forced me to tune in to others more than I ever did before. When you’re a dancer in a dance class, you’re focused on the mirror and you’re focused on yourself in the mirror. What do I look like? But I have to watch everyone in order to then figure out what I’m going to look like. I can’t just do what the choreographer is doing. I follow the dynamics of the movement. It’s anything from the direction that someone flicks their wrist or if they’re doing something that’s circular with their leg and figuring out how to adapt that dynamic and other areas of my body. It’s a game. It’s a game and it’s so much more challenging as a dancer than it ever was before. But it’s also been incredibly rewarding as an artist because I appreciate the other people that I’m in rooms with now more than I ever did. So my secret really is I steal from others. I sit and I watch for the majority of the class at first, and then I steal the dynamics and make it my own. At all times, I have three versions of a dance living in my head as I’m in one class where everyone just has to learn one.

Alycia Anderson: I think that’s a requirement of us as disabled people in anything that we’re doing. We have to figure out three different ways to find a path forward that works in the typical way. I don’t think it’s stealing. I think it’s the creativity and the innovation that comes out of your expertise. It’s incredible.

Kaylee Bays: Yeah, you’re so right. It’s what we do every day. We do what everyone else does, but we observe how they do it. Then we adapt it to adapting.

Alycia Anderson: Regarding being ambulatory in a chair up and down, what are some of those misconceptions of wheelchair users or able-bodied people? Where’s the intersection for you?

Kaylee Bays: I didn’t know what ambulatory was or an ambulatory wheelchair user was before I became one, which is so real for a lot of others as well. Oftentimes, people will make comments about it being a prop or they saw me move my legs. So why would I use a wheelchair if I can walk? A lot of times, people will say it’s for attention, things like that. I hold a lot of space for people to use me as a learning experience because we have not been portrayed in media in any way, shape, or form. Even their general basic understanding of wheelchair users is just from the little teeny tiny ounce of representation we’ve had in media. I give them space to learn from my story and from me doing what I do. For a while, I was really afraid of doing it. I was afraid of what the response would be, not just from people who are able-bodied, but the disabled community if I stood up in my dances. But the more that I did it, the more that I moved my legs and used my legs, the more that I found other dynamics, the more love and support and then also opportunity it gave for others to be able to do the same. Now I see people anywhere and everywhere, on my media, but also in dance classes and jobs, who have room.

Alycia Anderson: What’s so cool about that is the conversation and the stereotypes of what a disability should look like in general society’s eyes have really been this black and white, one way or the other. There’s this massive conversation in disability inclusion today on apparent disability versus non-apparent disability. What we’re missing in that story a lot and what I’d like to talk about is the intersection of it. I get looked at a lot, like I don’t have any non-apparent anything, but the non-apparent stuff that goes on inside of my body is the harder stuff than the wheelchair. You’re a visible example of apparent and non-apparent, blending that together and making it work really beautifully. I think it’s very timely right now in a lot of the conversations that we’re having. It’s really cool.

Kaylee Bays: Thank you.

Alycia Anderson: You were on So You Think You Can Dance. Congratulations. The first wheelchair user ever in history.

Kaylee Bays: Wild that it’s 2024 and that it’s history.

Alycia Anderson: How do you feel that experience has impacted disability representation in performing arts and beyond? Are you seeing some trickle-down already?

Kaylee Bays: Even for myself, I’m respected differently now here in LA by choreographers, and now others of our community are respected differently. There is a movement now to create accessibility in dance spaces like it never has before. That all is fairly recent. I know that this movement started long before I was even dancing in a chair. But right now, I see it happening more than I ever did before. The way that choreographers, directors, and media giants are now looking to make sure that they have people who are authentically represented in media, it’s just rad. I mean, it’s only the beginning. We still have so much room to go.

Alycia Anderson: We still have a lot of work to do. It is only the beginning, but to see little girls on social media in wheelchairs or with disabilities and doing these dances, and they’re not like the Alycia, I want to be the ballerina in my next life. They’re seeing you and they’re believing that they can do that. They are, and it’s absolutely incredible to see that confidence and belief. In not only yourself but in your community and the people around you that they can do the things that we’ve been taught are impossible for us. You’ve got a major role in that. It’s really amazing.

What advice would you give those little girls that are wanting to be artists or chase after their dreams or aspire in footsteps like yours?

Kaylee Bays: Oh, there’s so many things I’d want to say, but the one thing that I’m going to focus on is community and your circle. Because on the days that I would go into dance spaces and not feel so great about myself, the days that I would want to quit or even the reason that I’m even dancing is because the people that were in my support system believed in me. The most important thing really is when you go into a space. When I go into a dance space, I already know I’m being stared at. I know I’m being looked at, I know I’m being watched under a different lens by everybody in the room. Rather than being afraid of being stared at, I give them something to look at. I didn’t know how to embody confidence beforehand. I thought I did at points in my life, but fully embracing myself as I was and as I am, broken and all, completely changed my life. I wouldn’t be able to do it without the support system I have. So make sure that you’ve got an incredible circle around you of people who love you even on the days that you don’t love yourself. But fully embrace who you are because who you are is magic, and it took me a really long time to find that.

Alycia Anderson: It took me a long time too, but I do think that process of accepting yourself and figuring it out and becoming empowered in it can be a very beautiful life path, but it takes time, you know, a lot of time.

Kaylee Bays: Yeah, and it takes also finding the right artistic spaces that support you in loving who you are. I’m so lucky to have fallen into the classes that I did, especially at the beginning, because I’ve been through some rough classes and some rough jobs. Since I have my safe space in dance, I keep that safe. So that way, when I’m feeling icky about other things in life, or even sometimes icky about dance, I go to that studio, and that is home. Also, just having more studios that are inclusive, that don’t just have a blanket class of here’s a class for disabled dancers, keeping your classes actually integrated, and we just need to empower, honestly, we need to empower more studios, but we need to empower just people in general to understand what it means to adapt.

Alycia Anderson: A ton of education needs to happen, whether it’s in dance or in the workplace or in school rooms, all of it. I come from a fitness background too, not dance. Even just going to the gym and figuring out how to take classes, you know, it’s difficult. So that’s awesome. You are teaching as well, correct? You want to talk about that?

Kaylee Bays: I’m currently in my studio right now. We’re currently in Studio Slay. My dancers slay not just in the studio and not just at dance, but at life. I am so incredibly blessed to be able to run an entire virtual studio of classes that are filled with dancers who are, most of them are disabled, but disabled and able-bodied all ages. I teach various different styles. I’m about to have other teachers who are coming on to teach in the same ways and methods that I do for my classes, but my class is as accessible as I can make it. I will forever be learning how to make it more accessible. I teach seated. I have a standing assistant who does the standing choreography for those who stand. Then I also have a seated assistant who does a smaller version of the seated choreography. So you’re getting three different versions of the choreography. I teach with movement description for those who are low vision and those who just need a description. I bring in ASL interpreters if need be, if I get the request for that. But I love what I do because it’s so much more than dance and the best way for all of us to be able to connect from this community as disabled dancers right now at this moment is virtual because there just aren’t enough spaces for spaces of safety for other dancers like us. So that’s my Studio Slay. I have several soloists who are competing at Boundless Talent Showcase at the Rollettes Experience this year. One of my students just won a judges’ choice award at a dance competition and an able-bodied dance competition typically. I haven’t seen any other wheelchair users compete as teens at that level. I’m so lucky. I’m so lucky to get to live this life and do what I do. My greatest passion really is my dancers and the next generations of those coming in. That’s where my heart is and will forever be beyond anything else that I do.

Alycia Anderson: Beautiful. I will see you at the Rollettes Experience. I can’t wait. What is the future holding? What are the goals? What are the North stars right now? Where can we support you?

Kaylee Bays: I’m currently dancing with the Rollettes right now, which is a team of all female wheelchair users who dance at events together, competitions, things like that. You can support me by supporting the Rollettes. We are completely all self-funded, and then we have support from lovely partners, but we continue to be a support for an entire community that doesn’t have enough support. Definitely there. I’m working towards my goal of becoming, I would love to become the first dancer to tour with a major artist. I’m working on making that happen right now. You’ll find me in a studio 90 percent of the time.

Alycia Anderson: Tell me, did we miss anything that was important that we need to make sure we have?

Kaylee Bays: I think we’re wonderful. I’m so, so grateful that you asked me these questions today and for these conversations. I’m just very grateful for you. Thank you so much.

Alycia Anderson: Same. Sisterhood. We end the show every time with a pushing forward moment. We love our guests to offer some inspiration or mantra that you can gift off to our community. Do you have a little something?

Kaylee Bays: Okay, I’ll say what I said earlier. Often times when we go into the room, we’re being stared at anyways. You might as well give them something to look at.

Alycia Anderson: I love it. Absolutely. Kaylee, thank you so much. You are the queen of the dance studio straight to the stars. I can’t wait to see what stages you end up on. Congratulations for being such an amazing role model for so many of us. You’re so beautiful inside and out. Thank you to our pushing forward community for joining us again today. This has been Pushing Forward with Alycia and that is how Kaylee and I roll on this podcast.