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Arts and Entertainment


Sitting down and standing up with Cleveland's Dancing Wheels
America's first physically-integrated dance company celebrates its 35th anniversary
by WKSU's VIVIAN GOODMAN


Reporter
Vivian Goodman
 
Artistic Director Mary Verdi-Fletcher founded Dancing Wheels in Cleveland in 1980. The nation's first physically-integrated dance company will mark its own 35th anniversary as well as the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act with a gala concert this weekend followed by a nationwide tour.
Courtesy of VIVIAN GOODMAN
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This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

It was 35 years ago that the nation’s first physically-integrated dance company was founded. 

Saturday night in Cleveland’s Playhouse Square, dancers in wheelchairs will celebrate those two major milestones. 

WKSU’s Vivian Goodman reports.

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Daily training is stringent, and rehearsals are rigorous. That’s just how they roll at Dancing Wheels

Mary Verdi-Fletcher, America’s first professional wheelchair dancer, founded the company in Cleveland in 1980. She was born with spina bifida, and says she was also born to dance. 

Verdi-Fletcher’s father was a musician, her mother a professional dancer, and she thinks she might be related to composer Guiseppe Verdi.  “He was from the same region of Italy that my father’s family was from.” 

A place to train for the art form she loved
Growing up in Cleveland there was no place for Verdi-Fletcher to learn to dance except the family living room where her mother encouraged her.  

In her teen years she fell in love with disco, taught herself spins and wheelies, won a dance contest, appeared on PM Magazine and the Walt Disney show, and went on to start her own dance troupe and school. 

At Dancing Wheels, those with disabilities, or “sit-down” dancers, partner with “stand-up” dancers.

Different abilities but equally strong
As Artistic Director, Verdi-Fletcher expects no less from any of them than she still demands of herself at age 60.   “Strength, and speed, and agility.” 

Choreographer Catherine Meredith has a stand-up dancer do a handstand perched on the back of Verdi-Fletcher’s fast-gliding chair.  

“Okay so right there,” she interrupts, “as you’re finishing this she’s turning to you, and you can balance there.” 

Meredith danced professionally in New York City and with Cleveland’s Verb Ballets before joining dancing Wheels two years ago. 

 “I’ve never wanted to do anything but dance, and I’ve been choreographing since I was a 6-year-old girl in my bedroom.” 

Creative challenge
Meredith enjoys the challenge of putting together dancers with and without disabilities. 

“I think it pushes me to think outside the box. I try to play off their strengths and make them look as beautiful as they can look. That’s my inspiration when I come in here.”  

Stand-up dancer Sara Lawrence-Sucato draws inspiration from her sit-down partners, doing moves she couldn’t do in a conventional dance company. 

“It’s actually a fun challenge. There’s so many possibilities of movement.” 

And so many rewards. 

“How we give back to the community and how we bring awareness about disabilities to all people through dance.” 

Awareness through art in motion
21-year-old Demarco Sleeper of Cleveland wasn’t always aware.  

“There’s so many people, like I was one of them. There’s so many people that don’t know what it takes for someone with a disability.”  

Dancing Wheels shows what it takes, he says, and what’s possible.  

“For me it means a whole lot, especially because I was a stand-up dancer before. I haven’t always been in a wheelchair.” 

The accident was two years ago. 

“It was me, my brother, one of my best friends in the car, and we hit black ice on the freeway, and I flipped my ’02 Trailblazer, and we were all thrown from the vehicle, and I got a T-12 spinal cord injury.”  

Wondered if he would ever dance again
It happened just as Sleeper’s career as a dancer, choreographer, pianist and singer was starting to take off. 

A physical therapist told him about Dancing Wheels.  

“And she had me put together a dance piece to perform for all of the people in the hospital. Then, when I finished it she said, “Oh, you should audition for this company.’ ” 

If he hadn’t, he wonders where he’d be now. 

“As far as dancing, I don’t know, I’d probably still be at home doing wheelies. Just hanging out doing wheelies. I didn’t know if I would be able to dance again. This was like, I don’t know how you say it, the light in the darkness type situation, so I’m really thankful.”   

Making new moves
A former hip-hop dancer, Sleeper says he can do things now that he couldn’t before. 

“Actually, yes. I like to think of myself to be a really good adapter. Dancing in the chair I find if you use it as an extension of yourself it makes a lot of difference. There’s wheelies, spins, tilts, turns, all of that.” 

He says daily rehearsals, work-outs, and yoga have made him a stronger dancer sitting down than he was standing up. “Oh yes, a lot stronger. Flexibility that I never had. So there’s a lot I couldn’t do as a stand-up that I can do now that I would have never been able to do. There’s a whole lot I can do now.”  

A new dimension
Dancing Wheels founder and Artistic director Mary Verdi-Fletcher sees physically-integrated dance as a new art form. 

“We certainly can glide across the floor with one push, so to me it’s very much like what you would see in skating. It really adds a dimension to dance that I don’t think you could have just with all stand-up dancers.” 

It adds a new dimension to choreography for Catherine Meredith. 

“This company is very, very special. You change lives. You change viewpoints, misperceptions, and misconceptions about persons with disabilities. To be able to do that is a wonderful opportunity.”  

The opportunity to see Dancing Wheels will soon be available to many more audiences. 

Right after Saturday night’s gala the troupe takes off on a nationwide tour to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

 

(Click image for larger view.)

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