Dancing Wheels: Breaking down boundaries in the world of dance

Dancing Wheels Company & School cites one simple thought as the philosophy upon which it was built: “If dance is an expression of the human spirit, then it is best expressed by people of all abilities.”

If this is true, then Dancing Wheels, the first physically integrated dance company in the United States, may be the most candid examination of human character and emotion in the world of dance.

At 8:15 p.m. tonight, Dancing Wheels’ 15 company members will take the Amphitheater. Some will walk on in dance slippers. Some will roll on in wheelchairs. All, however, will dance, performing six separate works that celebrate human will, hope and the sheer love of movement.

“We call it ‘physically integrated dance,’ ” said Sara Lawrence-Sucato, a company member and tour manager of Dancing Wheels. “That means it’s for dancers with and without disabilities, thereby bringing us — the bodies and the people — together.”

Dancing Wheels Company was founded in Cleveland in 1980 by Mary Verdi-Fletcher. Verdi-Fletcher was born with spina bifida, a developmental congenital disorder, and despite her confinement to a wheelchair, she fell in love with the art of dance. Instead of allowing her disability to dictate and restrain her, however, she funneled it into artistic expression. In an art form that was defined by a dancer’s ability to move, Verdi-Fletcher defied convention and made the wheelchair — and the person in it — a statement all on their own. When Verdi-Fletcher’s school opened its doors 10 years later, it was with a premise of inclusive recreation and equal opportunity.

Today, Dancing Wheels Company has four “wheelers” — including Verdi-Fletcher herself — and 11 able-bodied dancers. The wheelers come from all different backgrounds: some have disabilities from birth, others have sustained life-altering injuries, some have background training in dance and some are new to the game. No matter what their condition or skill level, Lawrence-Sucato said they all lean on one another for support.

“As a company, we are a family, and we have to work together and solve problems together,” she said. “We find ways to make it work.”

Lawrence-Sucato, who has also choreographed for Dancing Wheels, said there is a set of joys and challenges entirely unique to working with physically integrated dancers. It can be difficult at times to grapple with physical limitations, she said, but in some ways they can be a blessing — they force choreographers and dancers to be more innovative.

“Because we come across people with so many different abilities, it’s really opened my perspective,” Lawrence-Sucato said. “I find it’s so much more interesting than a company with just able-bodied dancers, because of the new elements that the wheelchair brings. It’s a challenge because we have to find a way to translate movement, but it’s also a benefit, an added element, that we can work with.”

Tonight’s recital will showcase this creativity in motion, with six different dances that vary in style and inspiration. Many of the dances are choreographed to such popular musicians as Ray Charles, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Janis Joplin and Duke Ellington. The second dance on the bill, “Above,” is set to music by Samuel Barber and is a meditation upon the first time Verdi-Fletcher was able to dance free of her chair. The performance note on this piece explains that the opportunity to dance without a wheelchair was “one of the most freeing experiences that she has ever encountered.”

According to Lawrence-Sucato, it is moments like these that Dancing Wheels strives to create and share with its audience, instances of honest emotion and human empathy. The company is very cognizant of its responsibility as a face for people with disabilities everywhere, Lawrence-Sucato said, and company members strive to be role models for those with disabilities, as well as educators for the general public to raise awareness and eradicate stereotypes.

“Dancing resonated with me because of a sense of giving back to the community through the work that we do,” Lawrence-Sucato said. “We definitely take that [responsibility] forward in the communities that we go. We pride ourselves that we are the first physically integrated dance company in the nation.”

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