The Dancing Wheels Company

Ohio / Nov. 16, 2012 / by The Team

“It's probably the most equal playing ground for me that I've ever experienced - you're dancing with people, you're not dancing against them, you're a team.”

When Mary Verdi-Fletcher was born with spina bifida, she could only dream of becoming a dancer. “From the time that I was a small child, I wanted to follow in my mother's footsteps as a dancer but ... I used braces and crutches when I was very young and then started to use a wheelchair by the time I was 12,” she says. 

Despite a great desire to learn to dance the way her mother did, Verdi-Fletcher explains that, “There really wasn't a place for a child or an adult for that matter with a disability, a physical disability to learn how to dance. There were no dance studios that you could go to where the teacher would know how to, if you will use a terminology that we use, translate dance.”

The idea of being able to dance seemed just to be “a dream that I would have loved to have if I didn't have the disability,” she says.

Years later, Verdi-Fletcher was determined to find a way to dance. “Luckily it was back in the first disco days era where people were doing a lot of partner social dancing,” she says, “and I found some non-disabled dancers, friends of mine and we started to experiment.”

They found that the combination of sitting and standing dancers led to an interesting “fluidity” and they found that “it was very much like skating.”

After drawing a great deal of interest from family and friends, Verdi-Fletcher and her dancer partners entered a dance competition. “It was the turning point for showing the world that dance was possible if you were in a wheelchair,” she says. 

She started giving lessons and soon became connected to the Cleveland Ballet. The company was then known as The Cleveland Ballet Dancing Wheels and it attracted a great deal of attention. 

Verdi-Fletcher explains that, “Ballet dancers were inquisitive about it, choreographers really wanted to try their hand at creating dances around it, and people with disabilities wanted to learn how to do this technique and the non-disabled dancers felt like it was just a breath of fresh air in terms of typical dance.” 

The company as it is now, The Dancing Wheels company, was officially founded in 1980 in Cleveland Ohio. It performs twelve months out of the year and produces between seventy and a hundred shows throughout the year. 

Verdi-Fletcher says that people don’t quite know what to make of it when they first learn about the company. “When I first speak to people about physically integrated dance, they are unsure of what it is so basically I explain it as stand up and sit down dancers, and we're an inclusionary dance company so we include people of all abilities.”

It is the emphasis on the inclusion of people of all abilities that gives them a different perspective from other traditional dance companies. 

“When you're dancing in a wheelchair, a lot of times people think before they see it, will think that it's just the stand up dancer pulling the wheelchair dancer around but in reality, to know the technicalities behind it, to be able to do the arms - the port de bras - control the chair on different floor surfaces, to be able to have the same speed and agility as your non-disabled partner, takes many years of training.” 

Jason Shaw, a sit down dancer, says that “never in my life have I ever danced before, no type of ballet background, anything like that.” The training he does with the company means that he is learning new skills on two fronts: classical ballet movements and how to control his wheelchair with the precision needed for the choreography. 

Not only does it take a great deal of dedication and work from the sit down dancer, it requires a different approach by the choreographer and stand up dancers. 

Catherine Lambert, the company’s rehearsal director, says that, “The wheelchair is an entity ... so it requires a special finesse, it doesn’t move as fast or as precise sometimes.”

Stand up dancer, Dezare Foster, explains that, “When it comes to the choreography, I think we have more time to think about it and do it as stand ups but the partnering, that takes a lot more than when you’re with a stand up sometimes because the chair is like a third person.”

In order to show as many people as possible the art of integrated dance, The Dancing Wheels company has performed across the country as well as internationally, and visits a variety of venues. 

When they perform in places less well equipped for holding a stage or set, they are happy for the message of their performance to be at the forefront of the audience’s mind. In fact, with each performance evoking a different facet of life, from disabilities to relationships, the message is the most important part of their mission. 

The Dancing Wheels Company also has a full inclusionary dance school, which opened in 1990 and has since provided children, both disabled and non-disabled, with the chance to learn integrated dance. 

“It's a wonderful place to visit or participate in because kids are great. If they come into an environment where people are different and they grow up that way, they're so accepting and so we see in our school, kids without disabilities jumping in empty wheelchairs and using them as a means of maybe part of the dance or just because they're inquisitive about it.”

The children who learn at the school also get the chance to dance with the company at least once a year. It’s an opportunity not only to dance on a grand stage in front of a large audience but to be part of a company that considers itself a family. 

Verdi-Fletcher hopes to change the perspective of those sitting in the audience, people who might never have considered both the difficulties faced by someone with a disability and the paths possible to them. 

“One of the best comments I think I've ever heard was an audience member that came out afterwards and said, 'you know, I'll never look at a person with a disability in the same way,’” says Verdi-Fletcher. “He said, 'when we used to go down the street and I'd see someone in a wheelchair, I would feel sorry for them. I feel like they must be having a tough time even wheeling down the street. Now, I look at someone in a wheelchair and I wonder what they do, are they a doctor, are they a lawyer, are they a dancer?'” 

This is exactly the reaction that Verdi-Fletcher and the dancers involved in the company hope that people will have. They also, however, want each person in the audience, whether disabled or not, to be able to have a better image of themselves, a great confidence in their own abilities, no matter what they believe might be holding them back.  

“I think that when I have people see a performance or see what we're doing, I want them to be self-inspired. I want them to go out looking at their own lives and seeing what would make them the happiest, what they were afraid to do before, maybe they're not going to be afraid to do. They're going to have that determination to be all that they can be.”

To learn more about The Dancing Wheels Company and School, please visit their website and Facebook page.