Artist of the Month: Susie Angel

Artist of the Month: Susie Angel

By Silva Laukkanen.

Body Shift Dancers on stage

I must confess that I didn’t know where to begin with this conversation about Susie Angel because she is so many amazing things at once—but you have to start somewhere.

When Susie was little, she always dreamed about being a ballerina.

As she grew older, she never saw people with disabilities dancing, so she assumed it was an activity that would never be available to her. This dream, forgotten for so long, was reignited with her introduction to Art Spark Texas.

Wanting to write, Susie came across VSA Texas, now Art Spark Texas, while searching for creative writing workshops. Chris Strickling offered writing classes in which Susie took part, and at the tail end of the creative writing workshops, Chris asked Susie to be part of the theatre production she was working on.

In one of her first performances with the Actual Lives theatre program, Susie recreated an airport scene in which she met her long-distance partner, Juan, who visited her here in Austin. As Susie will tell you, people in wheelchairs get into planes first but come out last. So, there she was, waiting and waiting to see Juan. People around her were kissing and hugging and reuniting with their loved ones while Susie watched and waited with immense anticipation to be reunited with Juan. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, a pathway cleared, revealing Juan walking down the breeze-way. Susie took off to meet him; with her wheelchair dashing toward Juan, people parted like the red sea to avoid getting crushed. She scooped up Juan, and he sat on her lap as they finally got to say a proper hello to each other. They recreated this entire scene as part of the play.

Susie was introduced to dance through another Actual Lives production which featured choreography by Alison Orr. Susie was immediately hooked as those long-ago dreams of being a ballerina called to her from the past. She remembers telling Alison that she wanted to do part of the dance out of her chair and on her knees. It took some convincing, but eventually, Allison agreed to include it. Unfortunately, when everyone was moving in a circle during the performance, Susie fell and hurt her knee, but she got right back up, continued with the dance, and no one even noticed. Chatting afterward, when Susie told her what had happened, Alison congratulated Susie for an incredible performance and for her ability to continue despite her injury. “Welcome to the world of dance,” she said, and that meant the world to Susie. From that point on, Susie continued studying dance at Austin Community College with Alison Orr and then became an integral part of Body Shift.

She recalled some of her favorite performances and collaborations fondly. Through Body Shift, Susie met Lucy Kerr, a then dance student at the University of Texas at Austin, who was interested in creating mixed-ability work. The work they created together was about the world Susie lives in: Breaking the myths around people with disabilities. But Susie’s all-time favorite dance piece was one she performed at the Austin Dance Festival in 2019. In this work, Susie had a solo where all the other dancers had the chance to follow her movements. She did backbends and pirouettes, her interpretation of ballet, and she felt like a ballerina on stage!

Do you know when you meet those people who shake any preconceived notion you’ve ever had about what humans can be? Since I met Susie in 2012, she has shown me repeatedly why she is precisely that. The way she has gracefully navigated the art world while overcoming medical challenges and proving her existence in a predominantly ableist society, is inspiring. She is firm when she needs to be and has gently put me in my place a couple of times as well, for which I’m grateful. It is truly an honor to write and share about her.

For Susie, her two passions are dancing and writing. She never thought she would be a dancer, but now it is a reality. She feels that the world has changed to be more inclusive but that sometimes people still see her disability instead of her. Susie is still writing and still dancing. Most recently, she was dancing her heart out, along with her partner Juan and dear friend Tanya in a trio on May 30th at this year’s Austin Dance Festival.

Three people dressed in colorful clothing sit in wheelchairs outside.
Susie (right) with fellow Body Shift dancers Juan (left) and Tanya (middle) after their dance performance at the 2021 Austin Dance Festival in May 2021.


4 thoughts on “Artist of the Month: Susie Angel”

  1. Barbara Wilson

    The most inspirational couple on the planet. And I should know. I taught students with disabilities, including Juan and Susie. Not mentioned is Susie’s battle with brain cancer. Someone needs to make a movie about Juan and Susie. Please!!! You can interview me!

  2. Susie and Juan were also my students – they were amazing as youngsters and continue to amaze and inspire as adults. Yes, there is a place for a documentary about these two and the world would be a better place for it!
    Peg Beebe, Speech-Language Pathologist

  3. Susie, I really loved the dance piece you performed with Tanya at the December 2020 Lion & Pirate open mic. I wish you would do another dance piece soon. How about in September 2021? The one you did was TOO SHORT!

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