This Is How They Roll

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©Richard Downing / Courtesy of Sins Invalid /

The last act of the performance opened with a dark stage backlit with dusk-blue. To the sound of a pulsing Maori keening chant with techno highlights, wheelchair dancer Rodney Bell slowly descended onto the stage via cables. Sometimes dangling upside down, sometimes appearing to somersault, Bell, paraplegic, gyrated along the way. He slapped his chest and thighs–warlike gestures punctuated with grunts–and when he finally had all four wheels on the ground, his face, painted with traditional tattoos, appeared to the audience. The dance, sensual and aggressive, might have been a holy ritual.

Bell’s performance was part of a 2008 work by the Oakland, California, dance project Sins Invalid.

“In the opening piece I’m portrayed as being crucified and get carried up into the air off the stage,” says Bell, 39, a New Zealand native. “So in the last piece I come down. Inside I felt like one of the Maori weather gods, descending from being crucified, and also coming back empowered as a person with a disability, with my full sexuality and sensuality intact.”

Although Bell participates in Sins Invalid performances, his day job is as a professional dancer with AXIS Dance, a physically integrated Oakland dance company.

Physically integrated dance is performed by people with and without disabilities, together on the same stage or as part of the same piece of choreography. Each company is different, depending on its region and audience, but many of them have in common a strong sense of athleticism and aestheticism.

“Art is what changes the world, and it’s wonderful to change people’s ideas by giving them dance rather than telling them they should think or feel a certain way. They get to watch us and stare at us for two hours and come to their own conclusions,” says Judith Smith, artistic director of AXIS Dance, who became a quadriplegic at age 17 as a result of a car accident. “It was through dance that I learned all those things I didn’t learn in rehab. Dance completely changed my relationship to my body, my muscle strength, my balance, my coordination, all of that.”

The company was established in 1987, when people with and without physical disabilities dancing together was still new. Any and all were welcome to dance, regardless of ability or talent. This was a fun, creative time in the life of the company, but as the AXIS website says, “it wasn’t always easy convincing some that AXIS was creating dance and not ‘just doing therapy.’ “

Over the years, AXIS evolved into a respected professional dance company by bringing in outside choreographers and at the same time expanding and reorganizing its education program.

Bell has used a wheelchair since a motorcycle accident when he was 20. Always physical, Bell first discovered wheelchair basketball. Dance, while it is just as athletic, is more enjoyable, he says. “At AXIS we can practice up to six hours a day with just a couple of breaks. But when I’m dancing and thinking of how I move, I don’t really get tired. Or, I do, but I don’t notice.”

Mary Verdi-Fletcher is the first wheelchair user to have performed as a professional dancer in the United States. Born with spina bifida, Verdi-Fletcher founded the Dancing Wheels Company in Cleveland so that she could offer others with disabilities the chance to discover dance.

The company recently celebrated its 30th anniversary, a milestone for the whole genre, not just Dancing Wheels. “It’s flown by,” Verdi-Fletcher says. “It started out with just my desire to dance, and that stemmed from my mother, who was a professional dancer, and my father, who was a musician.”

Even though her mother taught her basic movement, Verdi-Fletcher had nowhere to go and no one to emulate to learn the finer points of wheelchair dance. She performed in nursing care facilities around the city, which is how she finally broke into the field. “The artistic director of the Cleveland Ballet was visiting a friend where I was performing, and he was struck by what he had seen. He had never seen a wheelchair user dance at that level before.”

They struck up a correspondence, and she told him she’d love to do something with the Cleveland Ballet. It took more than a year, but they developed an outreach and education program for both dancers and the local community. And Verdi-Fletcher finally received the higher level of training she craved.

“I was able to train with the dancers, take classes, and then develop my own classes,” she says. Thus was Dancing Wheels born.

Dancing Wheels performances often appeal to families: A dance called “Snowman” shows both sit-down and stand-up dancers–as the company refers to those who use or don’t use wheelchairs–engaging in snowball battles, building snowmen, and other winter activities. Yet there are some pieces, such as “Walking on Clouds,” that deal with serious topics, like how it feels to be discriminated against because of disability or race.

Dancing Wheels has a repertoire of more than 40 dances, many of them laced with whimsy.

“We have a wide range of audience,” Verdi-Fletcher says. “Stories appeal to parents, children, and grandparents. But we’re going to be working on Ingenuity [a Cleveland festival] with another company, mixing technology and art together. Plus, we’ll be working with NASA on dancing in zero gravity, moving through space–on not using your legs, whether you’re a stand-up or sit-down dancer.”

Verdi-Fletcher is developing a manual on her company’s style of physically integrated dance. “There have been many requests, and people in academia right now don’t know how to get started on the college level when they have a student taking a class,” she says. “There’s just always something new.”

Excerpted from New Mobility (Sept. 2010), a magazine about disability culture and other issues of interest to wheelchair users.

This article first appeared in the January-February 2011 issue of Utne Reader.

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