Safe Words: Offering Social Supports through Community Arts

A colour photo of two dancers strapped into wheelchairs. Jen, on hands and knees on Shay’s back. Each dancer gazes at their extended arm, smiling
Shay Erlich and Jenna Roy performing Safe Words. Photo: Jess Bullock (2019)
“There is usually a lot of confusion around what we do. It requires explanation,” says Jenna Roy, co-founder of The Cyborg Circus Project along with Shay Erlich. The confusion stems from the fact that the collective engages in both community art and social service. Both Shay and Jenna however feel that the two are interrelated. 

Established in 2018, The Cyborg Circus Project is a trans and disability led arts collective offering arts education, performance and social support to disabled young people. They run several community arts projects, have wheelchair dance projects and provide social support to youth.  Initiatives include the Lending Library that gives mobility devices and equipment to youth, allowing them to access Cyborg Circus programming and the broader community. 

“(For our arts programming) we think through what are all of the things that somebody needs to be able to be in this room, in this space with us,” says Shay. This requires an understanding that many youths will be skipping part-time work for the program, taking into account the challenges of transportation, putting in door-to-door or specialized transportation into the budget, and thinking about food and resources for childcare. Shay and Jenna understand that in order for their programs to be accessible, they have to think about the structural challenges for people with disabilities. Social service is essential for community art. 

“(Through community art) we want to create a place where disability is normalized. A place where disability is centered,” says Shay. Having dance programs allows them to create that space, where youths can come together and find resources, find a sense of community, a place where their competence is not doubted but rather encouraged. “Art (for us) is a catalyst for community change,” says Shay. 

“What also confuses people is that we are an organization for disabled people, run by disabled people,” says Shay. “People are used to seeing disabled people from a service recipient perspective.” Disrupting the ableist centric approach to everything is integral to the values of The Cyborg Circus Project. In 2019, Shay and Jenna began working on their dance project Safe Word. Created from wheelchair users’ real experiences in public spaces, Safe Words explores the issue of street harassment faced by disabled folks and questions the need to demonstrate hyper-competence in public to avoid harassment. It is a 20–25-minute contemporary Wheelchair Dance duet with original soundscape and their largest project to date.     

Colour photo of two dancers strapped to wheelchairs, laying face down on the floor. Jen’s arm is wrapped around Shay’s shoulder as they look intensely at each other.
Shay Erlich and Jenna Roy performing Safe Words. Photo: Jess Bullock (2019)

Shay and Jenna talk about how people have a certain expectation of what Wheelchair dance looks like. There is a certain perspective about what a person on a wheelchair is able to do and many of the audience comments that The Cyborg Circus Project get, reflects this lack of knowledge. They talk about the usual expectation of disability art is to be an “overcoming” story. “That's one of the few legible narratives of disability that non-disabled folks get readily access to,” adds Shay. Safe Word challenges this trope. 

In 2020 The Cyborg Circus Project received a TAC Dance Projects grant. “TAC was the first grant we got towards Safe Words,” says Shay. “It was really huge, to get that sense of confidence that people were interested and invested in this work, and that it had an appeal to a larger audience, not just disabled audiences.”

“It also felt important that the grant did not come through the disability stream,” adds Jenna. “Even though it is an important story about disability through dance.” 

Shay and Jenna are working on making a dance video for Safe Words. This wasn’t the original plan but emerged in the context of the pandemic. This will be their first dance video.