Skepticism is the natural reaction, Mary Verdi-Fletcher confirms, when one first encounters the concept of wheelchair dance.
“When you hear ‘wheelchair’ with ‘ballet’ and ‘dance,’ none of it goes together,” the co-artistic director and principal dancer with the Cleveland Ballet Dancing Wheels admits. “You have to see to believe.”
The misconceptions are rooted in language itself, Verdi-Fletcher notes. “People look at wheelchairs as a means of confinement,” she points out. “The saying is, ‘He or she is confined to a wheelchair.” But Verdi-Fletcher also sees words as potential tools to forge a new perspective. “We say ‘sit-down’ and ‘stand-up’ dancers,” she explains.
Instead of seeing wheelchairs as restrictive devices, the dancer urges a different view: “To us, wheelchairs are a means of mobility and freedom.”
The dance world is more than willing to accept wheelchair dance as a rehabilitative tool, says Verdi-Fletcher, but that isn’t the aim of Dancing Wheels. Her most formidable challenge may lie in impressing upon doubters the fact that this is art, not exercise.
“Dancers who haven’t seen a performance don’t understand,” she offers. “It’s not therapeutic. Our training provides sit-down dancers with the best possible application of dance — options that should be the same for all dancers.”
Born with spina bifida, Verdi-Fletcher founded Dancing Wheels in 1980.
“I loved music, movement, dance, but I had no opportunity to learn,” she remembers. “I had to create it.”
The company formed a strong bond with the Cleveland Ballet and, in 1990, formed Cleveland Ballet Dancing Wheels, an integrated company of sit-down and stand-up dancers who reach more than 150,000 people worldwide each year. Shortly before its performance in Asheville, the company is due to receive the 1998 Ohio Arts Council’s Governor’s Award for its Arts in Education Outreach Program.
Education is always one of the group’s goals, and their appearance in any town includes lectures in local schools and hospitals. But Verdi-Fletcher stresses that these are lecture/performances, with the emphasis on demonstration: “We always include dance with lecture. It does need to go hand-in-hand.” This summer, Dancing Wheels will host a workshop in Cleveland for people from all over the world.
In 1994, Sabitino Verlezza joined Dancing Wheels as co-artistic director and choreographer. Verlezza has performed with 92-year-old American modern-dance pioneer May O’Donnell and has also directed his own company, Verlezza Dance, in New York City. His choreography has been staged by Joffrey II and other world-renowned companies. Verlezza’s addition to the group puts the dance world on notice about Dancing Wheels’ artistic significance.
Like all dancers, seated ones train arduously to perfect their routine, using surprisingly similar procedures. “[There’s] a commonality of training,” relates Verdi-Fletcher. “Nondisabled dancers do warm-ups in a seated position. We study the technique of May O’Donnell, a method that [involves] contraction and expansion of the torso.”
Though O’Donnell’s technique was not created with wheelchair performers in mind, Verdi-Fletcher found it readily adaptable to dancers with different needs. “There are a lot of parallels,” she explains. “We decided there was a way to translate it. By [working on] upper-body strength, we can build on what [stand-up] dancers do” — or even surpass it. “We have a lot of speed,” she notes. “Our turns are succinct.” Indeed, the seated dancers have, at times, accelerated enough to actually become airborne.
Verdi-Fletcher also stresses the integration of the dancers in most of the group’s shows. “We have duets and whole ensembles that are [both] stand-up and sit-down dances,” she points out.
Dancing Wheels performances include everything from classical Italian folk dances to modern-dance moves choreographed to a sweeping spectrum of musical styles — “everything from the Beatles to techno music,” as Verdi-Fletcher puts it.
If you’re a fan of the latter, get ready for one of the group’s newest dances, “420 Megahertz.” Verdi-Fletcher finds the “precise, driving” quality of electronic music an evocative accompaniment to wheelchair dance, and appropriately, this number showcases sit-down dancers.
“People come to a performance not knowing what to expect,” declares Verdi-Fletcher. “[They] leave with a whole different [sense] of possibility for disabled persons, and of life in general. Once you see a performance and realize how all this is formulated, it gives people a different vision. They can see it takes no less precision and technique for disabled dancers than [for] nondisabled. We work in unison.”