Alumni News

Bennington Stories: Audre Wirtanen '17

Audre Wirtanen '17 is the Co-Founder and Co-Director Hyp-ACCESS, which develops multi-field care access for common & neglected Hypermobile conditions from a foundation of People’s Science & Disability Justice.

Image of Audre Wirtanen

Bennington Stories is a series of first-person messages that share voices from throughout the unique and multifaceted Bennington community.

The Science Of Dance: An Experiential Odyssey

Dance is unique among the performing arts. There is no reliance on language as a tool for communication. Instead, a different kind of dialogue is developed: a community dialogue, an extra-sensory back and forth between dancers themselves and the audience. 

With my shared background in dance and neuroscience, I am constantly thinking about how all our senses are always in a state of activation and engagement, whether we’re conscious of it or not. For me, dance is a space to explore those extra-sensory pathways – to explore those socialized assumptions that comprise the world, that shape me and my perceptions. 

I began dancing when I was 12. For dancers who took their first lessons at the age of 6, this might qualify as a late start. The thing is, anyone can be a dancer, and at any age. Bennington taught me that.

I was born with a connective tissue syndrome called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (named after the men who “discovered” it). I didn’t know that until I was 22. A lot of dancers have it. A lot of people have it - it’s likely as common as 1 in 5 people, but everyone is impacted differently. For much of my life I was experiencing things something that I didn’t have the language for, which is part of why my organization, Hyp-ACCESS, specializes in supporting these and other hypermobility-related conditions. 

I believe that there exists a deep symbiosis between dance and neuroscience. All the receptors that provide feedback to your nervous system to maintain life, which are housed in connective tissues, are the same receptors that are triggered when you are dancing. Dance requires you to develop a relationship to your senses, with specific, initiated integrations that can be harmful to different people. I see dance as an experiential relationship to the sensory motor system. And I also see dance as exclusionary to people with different sensory experiences, or different relationships to their sensations.

Within neuroscience as a practice, we find ourselves trying to understand how isolated pieces of body systems work. The nervous system integrates all of them. Dance, science, organizing: all of these interests of mine congealed at Bennington. My primary interest was initially dance, but Bennington boasts a science program like no other in the country, and I was quickly immersed. I feel grateful to have been a part of the science family in Dickinson.

Compared to other universities, Bennington is systems-based, organizationally minded. At Bennington, one learns to foster a spirit that is both innovative and interdisciplinary in nature. I found myself on essentially the pre-med track as a student there, while also dancing 30 hours per week. In a sense, I was alternating back and forth between the experiential version of what I was interested in, and also a more classically academic version. Bodymind all at once! In disability communities, it is acknowledged that embodied experience cannot be separated into pieces - body and mind are interconnected, and that interconnection is vital. So, “bodymind” is used to describe our whole, complicated self.

Bennington is also where I learned the value of community organization. I was once the head of SEPC, where my work involved interfacing with the administration, faculty, and students, to prioritize the needs of students across various disciplines. At the same time, I became a trusted person with the unionized staff: in other words, the people who worked in buildings, grounds, and housekeeping. They have worked at Bennington for decades. They care so much about students, and I felt like they were family.

At Bennington, I found a core group of like-minded people – or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that we found each other. Together, we ended up organizing the second largest student movement in the history of Bennington, advocating for the college to improve its health plan offerings so that staff could actually afford them and access essential healthcare for their families. We were hardly in that fight alone: we had the support of hundreds of students and faculty, a moving show of solidarity, organization, and coming together.

For me, dance is about coming together. It’s a full-body experience, replete with all the biases and self-narratives of our vast and contradictory world. My preferred form of dance prioritizes disassembling and dismantling ableism, both towards oneself, and others. I am interested in exploring movement itself in a way that honors and protects the boundaries of identity and experience. Pain, for example, is a sensory boundary. In that sense, improvisational dance is a way to reconstruct harmful self-narratives and behavioral cycles.

Hyp-ACCESS is an extension of my community organization work that I direct with another disabled artist, L Tuthall. We offer programs, resources, and community access and engagement for people with commonly misunderstood or misdiagnosed hypermobile conditions. We are the only care justice advocacy organization that addresses these conditions in the world. Suffice to say, it has been one of the greatest undertakings and biggest challenges of my life.

People come to us in need of support. We serve the people who are most commonly impacted, who happen to be the same people most excluded from medical care - people with uteruses, people of color, queer and gender-nonconforming and trans people, and neurodivergent people. We’re working with communities that don’t doesn’t have access to that care – care that is most often reserved for well-to-do cis white folks. And even that care is alarmingly subpar.

Of course, we’ve decided to open a patient-run clinic in New York City, which will be yet another iteration of all of my interests and ways of thinking about the world. It's a commitment, that’s for sure. To be honest, though? I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Audre Wirtanen '17
Co-Founder and Co-Director Hyp-ACCESS
Performer and Choreographer, Bennington College Dance Department (2012-2014)
Department of Dance Representative, Head of the Student Educational Policies Committee 
BA, Neuroscience and Dance 2017