“It has this depth and breadth of movement that is not obtainable using only your own feet”
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.”,
Mary Verdi-Fletcher with her fellow dancers. (Image via Dancing Wheels)
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.
Dancing Wheels is in the process of rebranding itself as the World Center for Integrated Dance and Arts Access, a move which Verdi-Fletcher says will include the introduction of virtual classes that can be taken by people all around the world.
Meanwhile, she applauds the efforts of the United Nations, which just celebrated the 10-year anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (introduced on December 13, 2006). The Convention aims to “promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity.”
Since the CRPD was first introduced, 172 out of 193 states parties have ratified it and “the goal for 2017 is universal ratification,” Talin Avades, who serves at the United Nations secretariat for the CRPD, tells GOOD via email.
Article 30 of the CRPD specifically calls on countries to ensure that people with disabilities can participate in cultural and sporting activities like dance. Like Verdi-Fletcher, the Convention advocates that society should view people with disabilities as active, autonomous citizens, not charity cases deserving of sympathy.
With that belief, Verdi-Fletcher is trying to push steadily to the future where her dance troupe isn’t seen as out of the ordinary or as a specialty. Already, the choreography allows sit-down and stand-up dancers to move together in such harmony that audience members have told Verdi-Fletcher that they forget that what they’re seeing isn’t the norm.
Members of the Dancing Wheels troupe. (Image via Dancing Wheels)
But while most pieces in Dancing Wheels’ repertory are simply art for art's sake, the company will also continue explicitly infusing advocacy into its performances until physically integrated dance is more widespread. For example, the studio has an incredibly popular presentation that combines performance and lecture to teach attendees about disability awareness, diversity, and dance. Last year, the company commissioned five works that portrayed the history, evolution, and importance of the themes of the American Disabilities Act: employment, education, public access, transportation, and communication. It brought the show to over 26 cities in nine states.
At 61, Verdi-Fletcher still gets tremendous amounts of joy out of her craft and hopes to keep dancing as long as she’s physically able. Dance still ignites the same spark in her as it did during her childhood. She bubbles with awe when she thinks about how far disability acceptance has come since then and swells with determination when she thinks about all the work there is left to do.
“I love dance and I would do it for no reason at all, just because I love it,” she says. “But when I see it moving people and changing their lives—inspiring them and uplifting them—that’s what makes me feel like my work is important.”