Water-Based Movement Training: A Disabled Woman’s Journey - Petra Kuppers


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photo of Petra Kuppers in a swimming pool, holding another person
Petra Kuppers during her formal Watsu training in a pool in Florida. Photo credit: Stephanie Heit
photo of Petra Kuppers in a swimming pool, holding another person
Petra Kuppers during her formal Watsu training in a pool in Florida. Photo credit: Stephanie Heit

"Imagine how few physical exercise and creative movement opportunities there are for disabled people, particularly beyond the notion of therapy, where something is supposed to get ‘better.’”

In Summer 2016, IRWG and the Sport, Health and Activity Research and Policy (SHARP) center awarded the first Joan Schafer Research Faculty Award in Sport, Fitness, and Disability to Petra Kuppers, Professor of English, Art and Design, Theatre and Drama, and Women’s Studies.

As a disabled dancer and scholar, Kuppers works at the intersection of movement and creative writing, feminist somatics and politicized bodies. Since 2013, she has led community water-based workshops as part of her ongoing “Salamander Project,” which incorporate creative movement and writing in pools, lakes, rivers and oceans around the world. 

She explains, “My work has long been about the relationship between water and disability. The work I do as an artist is about what it means to be publicly disabled, to be engaged in creative activities, to be in nature parks, to do well-being work that has both a political edge -- how do we represent ourselves in the world, how do we push against stereotypes of disability? -- and a somatic edge -- how do we keep ourselves well and find enjoyment in physical activity?”

Professor Kuppers’s career began as a community dance instructor. As one of the first wheelchair-users in the United Kingdom to earn professional dance qualifications, she spent years teaching dance and creative movement to community members, senior citizens, people with mental illness and physical disabilities, and hospice patients near the end of life. Later, she turned to academia, where her research and teaching intersects with the arts, movement, creative writing, feminist theory and disability studies.

With support from the Schafer Research Faculty Award, Kuppers was able to further explore her study of water-based movement work. “I was particularly interested in the employment opportunities for disabled people in water arts,” she explains. “What kind of sport activities are open to disabled people to be leaders (not just participants)? Who takes these sessions? Who gets qualifications in acquafitness?”

The grant allowed her to enroll in and act as a participant observer in two types of aquafitness training workshops in summer and fall 2016. The first was a weeklong seminar to gain certification to be an aquafitness instructor, which would enable participants (after passing a certification exam) to be licensed to teach in health clubs, rehab or fitness centers. The second course was a weeklong training session in Watsu, a one-on-one form of aquatic bodywork that relies on touch. Developed as therapeutic technique at Harbin Hot Springs in California, Watsu sessions tend to be more open to alternative conceptions of gender and sexualities. She describes the technique as “wafting people on the water,” and incorporating massage and Shiatsu pressure point therapy with the pull of the water, which helps stretch muscles and soothe swollen joints. Most of the participants in the training courses were health or fitness professionals, massage therapists, doulas, or occupational therapists. “I was the odd one out as an artist,” says Kuppers.

photo of Petra Kuppers in a morning aquafitness class

Her observations and reflections resulted in several pieces of creative writing. Her critical/creative essay, “Public Intimacies: Water Work in Play,” co-written with swimming partners VK Preston, Pam Block, and Kirsty Johnson, will appear in a special issue of the Canadian Journal of Disability Studies on “cripping the arts.” Her experiences also inspired a piece of speculative fiction titled “Fjord Pool,” recently published in Northern Michigan’s independent literary journal, Dunes Review. And, in June, her story “Dolphin Pearls” was included in the fifth issue of the critical/creative journal Dark Matter, as part of their two-part series on “Making Kin,” inspired by Donna Haraway’s call for an expanded vision of kin and kinship.

Kuppers will also give presentations about her water-based projects at conferences for the Association for Theatre in Higher Education and the American Society for Theatre Research.

She hopes to lead Watsu and creative aquafitness sessions informally at Disability Studies conferences, as well as at local pools when possible. A stumbling block to teaching these sessions is finding warm pools that are accessible to people with different disabilities, including herself as the instructor.

It’s clear that this is a passion-project, as well as academic research for Kuppers. In describing the experiences of participating in water-based movement, she blurs the lines between health and art. In most aquafitness classes, participants are instructed to execute specific movements, often to music. In some classes, there is time during the cool down for people to waft and move freely in the water. “You can see people loving it,” enthuses Kuppers. “That’s the part that I really value, that’s the point where arts and sports meet. You’re moving your body, you are engaged in movement that supports your well-being, not just physical well-being, but also spiritual and psychological well-being because you’re engaged in creative work.”

According to Kuppers, for people with disabilities who may be isolated or unable to participate in traditional physical exercise, water-based classes offer an opportunity to connect with others. “So many people use these kinds of classes as their one social outing,” she says. There are also physical benefits: “Your heart rate goes up, the hydrostatic pressure of the water will massage you...There’s no point at which you don’t get health benefits but they are woven in with creative expression. That’s the part I really like. And the social benefits, being with others...and a validation of one’s own way of being.”

The Joan Schafer Research Faculty Award in Sport, Fitness, and Disability, established in 2015, supports projects investigating how living with a physical challenge influences access to and participation in sport and physical activity. Projects that have real world application are a top funding priority. This grant supports both theoretical as well as intervention research, including challenges and solutions related to transitioning to civilian life from military service. 

Donate to the Schafer Fund.

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