Judith Smith, the co-founder and director of AXIS Dance Company, a trailblazing Oakland performing arts organization that works with disabled dancers, announced her retirement Wednesday. She is 57 years old.
Smith co-founded AXIS Dance in 1987, a decade after a car wreck left the former accomplished horse-rider disabled at the age of 17.
AXIS was one of the first contemporary dance groups on the planet to specifically choreograph works that integrated dancers with and without physical disabilities.
“I had this hunch that we could make a place in dance for integrated dance and dancers with disabilities,” Smith wrote in an email.
Over 30 years with the company, Smith commissioned works by the likes of Meredith Monk and Bill T Jones. She co-curated the First International Festival of Wheelchair Dance. And AXIS appeared twice on FOX TV’s So You Think You Can Dance, bringing choreography by performers in wheelchairs, on crutches and with prosthetics to audiences of millions.
“The greatest achievement has been changing perceptions about dance and disability and changing lives,” Smith said.
“Judy was undeniably driven by a mission to challenge and expand the idea of who can dance and was hugely instrumental in the creation of a new genre of dance that included people with disabilities,” said AXIS cofounder, dancer and teacher Bonnie Lewkowicz . “The impact she made in the dance world is far-reaching. Not only did she elevate AXIS as a world-renowned physically integrated dance company, but she also educated funders, choreographers, educational institutions and arts organizations about the need to expand participation and inclusion of people with disabilities on an institutional level.”
The road hasn’t been easy, though. “Early on, the challenge was convincing people that what AXIS was doing is dance,” Smith said. “The ongoing challenge has been finding disabled dancers and making a place for disabled dancers in all of the entry points to dance that non disabled dancers have.”
Smith says she’ll leave AXIS next February, citing health reasons — exhaustion and chronic pain among them. She ceded her longtime job as artistic director of the company to Marc Brew last January. Smith says she plans to focus on advocacy work such as working to advance equity for people with disabilities in the performing arts.