From across the atlantic…
When the music starts and the lights come up, Mary Verdi-Fletcher’s dancers don’t just pirouette or sashay onto the stage. Some of them roll.
Often Verdi-Fletcher herself takes center stage, gracefully translating contemporary jazz or ballet moves into new forms of expression that suit her wheelchair.
She’s the founder and president of Dancing Wheels Company & School, a 36-year-old institution in Cleveland, Ohio, that brings together people in wheelchairs with the able-bodied for what’s known as physically integrated dance. Through performance, lessons, and advocacy, the company aims to make dance more inclusive to people with disabilities around the world.
Verdi-Fletcher tells GOOD that people who’ve never seen someone in a wheelchair perform often can’t comprehend what her kind of artistry could possibly look like—and she relishes the opportunity to show them, especially on a global scale.
Verdi-Fletcher was born in 1955 with spina bifida, but she always fought the idea that she should be characterized by her disability. Her mother, a former vaudeville performer, inspired her love of dance and never tried to quench her passion, even after she broke several leg braces (and her legs) or later popped a wheel off one of her expensive chairs.
In the ’70s, Verdi-Fletcher started hitting up dance halls with her nondisabled friends and experimenting with new ways to partner dance with them. They practiced lifts, twists, wheelies, and ground work. Verdi-Fletcher’s internal fierceness, combined with her group’s enthusiastic inclusion, helped deflect the skepticism or judgment of strangers.
After she and a partner tried out in 1980 for popular television competition Dance Fever, more people discovered Verdi-Fletcher’s talent and she started performing across the country as the first professional wheelchair dancer in the United States.
That year, she founded Dancing Wheels as a touring dance company but she expanded it 10 years later into a nonprofit that would also provide lessons and disability awareness advocacy. Today, a major focus of the company is making the dance world realize that bringing in people who use wheelchairs should be seen as a benefit, not a handicap.
“It has so much fluidity that it’s almost like skating,” Verdi-Fletcher says of wheelchair dancing. “It has this depth and breadth of movement that is not obtainable using only your own feet.” Sure, “sit-down” dancers can’t leap, but stand-up dancers can’t truly glide.“One push and you’re across the stage,” she says. “People sometimes say if you had a disability you are wheelchair bound, but for us, wheelchairs are a vehicle for freedom. And that shows so strongly in the dance.”,
There are now dozens of physically integrated dance companies across the United States, including AXIS Dance in California, DanceAbility International in Oregon, and Infinity Theatre in New York. But Verdi-Fletcher is particularly adamant about getting academic institutions to step up. Few universities and colleges with dance departments have teachers trained to include people with disabilities, despite laws protecting students with disabilities from discrimination. Her company has forwarded that mission by releasing the first physically integrated dance teaching manual.
Some countries currently do a better job than the United States at promoting diversity in the arts. For example, the UK and Australia are better at “weaving inclusion into the cultural fabric” through festivals and public support, Judith Smith, co-founder of AXIS Dance, recently pointed out at a conference on physically integrated dance. And wheelchair dancesport, a competition that includes one sitting and one standing participant, actually originated in Sweden in the 1970s, long before it became popular in America.
But Verdi-Fletcher has seen firsthand that in some other countries, people with disabilities have less infrastructure to support them, as well as fewer opportunities to participate in the arts.
Dancing Wheels has previously traveled to Russia, the Czech Republic, Trinidad, and other countries to perform and teach classes. In Poland and Guatemala in particular, Verdi-Fletcher says that the people that she worked with seemed particularly empowered by the notion that they could be dancing alongside their able-bodied peers.
“Their wheelchairs were broken, but their spirits were not,” she says.
Source: Dick’s Sporting Goods
By: Jillian D’Onfro.