‘I grew up being told my body was wrong,” says Dan Daw. “And being told by medical professionals that my body had to be fixed. I was told I wouldn’t be able to be a dancer.” But that wasn’t true at all.
Born disabled – he identifies as “crip”, reclaiming the word, and prefers not to detail his condition – Daw, 38, grew up in an outback town in South Australia and showed a talent for performing from a young age (his grandmother was a dance teacher). During a drama degree in Adelaide, Daw discovered that working with his body was what made him buzz, which led him to dance, to the UK, to Candoco dance company and then to making his own honest and autobiographical performances, the latest of which is The Dan Daw Show.
Despite his certainty that his body was his best creative tool, Daw has been on a real journey with it. “I’ve had to pull apart and rebuild the relationship I had with my body,” he says, “and I’m only in the past couple of years starting to really find the joy in my body, because I still felt an immense amount of shame.” The Dan Daw Show is about him finding a way to own what he calls his “messy” body, “and finding my crip joy inside that”.
The medium Daw uses to illustrate this joy is kink. You might know it as BDSM, a term for sexual practices that go beyond vanilla and are often misunderstood. What kink absolutely isn’t is Fifty Shades of Grey, says director Mark Maughan, who created the show with Daw (whom he calls a “rare talent” of great integrity, humour and generosity of spirit). “I think people associate it with violence, pain, trauma,” he says, whereas in reality kink practices are about “care, interdependence and communication”. “Kink is about asking for what you need and not being ashamed of that, celebrating the things that we know we desire. That level of connection and communication with another human being is pretty special,” says Maughan. “When you feel that, it’s something incredible.”
In the case of The Dan Daw Show, this is illustrated in a duet with the non-disabled dancer Christopher Owen, where Daw allows himself to be dominated completely on his own terms. It’s about Daw being able to drop his armour, since in the outside world he never lets himself be seen as vulnerable. “My guard is up all the time,” he says. “Is someone going to point and laugh at me, or try and trip me up? Am I going to be infantilised today? Is someone going to speak really loudly at me? Is somebody going to invite me to come to their church because god can heal me? I even get people asking me if I’m homeless. The pity look. What have you got for me today, world?!”
Only really on stage, and during sex, can Daw be unapologetic about inhabiting his body, he says. It’s easier for him to ask for, and get, what he needs in the bedroom than in the outside world. “There’s a line in the show where I say, ‘I wish I could feel this free all of the time’,” says Daw. “The level of care involved in kink practices is beautiful. If we could have that same level of care and respect and consent with each other when we’re on the rush-hour tube in the morning we could build ourselves an incredible world.”
Performing is also a space where Daw can rewrite the power dynamic between himself and a mostly non-disabled audience. “You can look at me, stare at me, but at the end you’re going to clap, you’re going to love me,” he says, smiling at the idea of “people enjoying my body and paying money to see my body”. “Here in my space I’m consenting to Chris dominating me in a way that gives me pleasure and sets my body free, and there’s a real power in that,” he says. “I’m using a non-disabled body to give me what I need, so it speaks to allyship in a brilliant way, and that there’s more that non-disabled people can be doing for disabled people in the world.”
When Daw is in control of the narrative in the theatre, some of that long-held shame can be overcome and turned into power and pride. “After years of hating my body and rejecting my body, with this show I’m celebrating my body for the first time,” he says, “and it’s liberating in the most spectacular way.”
The Dan Daw Show is at the Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadler’s Wells, London, 30 September-1 October.