Have Wheels, Can Dance

Translating dance movement for physically disabled dancers has opened doors and minds

By Steve Sucato

Mary Verdi-Fletcher remembers vividly the startled look on dancer/choreographer Bill T. Jones’ face when she showed up to take one of his master classes. “I told him, ‘Don’t worry about me; I will just translate what you are doing. Don’t give it a second thought,’ ” she says.

Jones’ brief moment of panic came about because Verdi-Fletcher dances from a wheelchair.

Born with spina bifida in 1955 in Cleveland, Ohio, Verdi-Fletcher says that even as a child in leg braces, she knew she had to dance. Coming from a family of artists (her mother was a dancer and her father a professional musician), she says dancing was in her blood. She would routinely break her leg braces trying to dance. After acquiring a series of progressively stronger braces, she finally broke her leg instead of her braces. Because of that incident she was advised by her doctor to use a wheelchair.

Being in a wheelchair did little to deter Verdi-Fletcher from dancing, and at age 12, trying to emulate dance moves she saw on American Bandstand, she broke a wheel off her wheelchair. As she grew up and into a career as one of the nation’s first professional dancers in a wheelchair, Verdi-Fletcher began to develop less destructive ways to use her wheelchair to dance.

A pioneer out of necessity, she not only had to overcome people’s perceptions about who could be a dancer; she also had to invent a new technique that allowed people in wheelchairs to dance. “Because I was only dancing and working with non-disabled dancers, I had to look at what they were doing and come up with translations,” she says. Part of her approach is what she calls “smooth technique,” in which wheeling the chair does not look pedestrian.

After years of proving her mettle as an independent professional dancer in the Cleveland area, in 1980 Verdi-Fletcher founded Dancing Wheels, the country’s first physically integrated professional dance company, combining disabled and non-disabled dancers. A joint venture with Cleveland Ballet followed in the 1990s, along with the additions of Dancing Wheels’ affiliated school, summer programs, and community outreach programs. As a result, numerous wheelchair, or “sit-down,” dancers have been able to take dance classes with their “stand-up” counterparts by using Verdi-Fletcher’s translation methods and techniques. Today Dancing Wheels’ integrated school boasts 984 students and its professional company, which tours nationally and internationally, employs 13, 4 of them dancers in wheelchairs.

The approach
Verdi-Fletcher’s translations key off of several factors in the movement, such as balance, quickness, speed, and intention, regardless of the technique (ballet, modern, or others). Sit-down dancers use their arms to represent leg and feet movements, arm movements, or a combination of both.

While Verdi-Fletcher’s translations are geared typically to wheelchair dancers with a good deal of upper-body mobility, her translations can be modified to fit the needs of dancers with lesser physical capabilities. Many of her translations are common-sense interpretations of dance movements, says Verdi-Fletcher. For example, a pirouette is translated into making the wheelchair spin in a circle, jumps into popping wheelies, and a grapevine motion into a zigzag motion with the chair. The trick, says Verdi-Fletcher, is incorporating both leg and arm movements into port de bras while at the same time controlling the motion of the wheelchair.

Teaching translation
“If you don’t know how to tap dance, you can’t teach someone to tap dance,” says Dancing Wheels School coordinator Kristen Stilwell. To that end, Stilwell—a stand-up dancer—feels that those who wish to teach dancers in wheelchairs need firsthand experience in a wheelchair in order to learn its capabilities. Learning how to move and manipulate a wheelchair is a good first step in learning how to translate dance movement to a sit-down dancer.

“Wheelchairs are like dance shoes,” says Verdi-Fletcher. “They are all different and are fitted to the person in the chair.”

Because wheelchairs are also very expensive, most sit-down dancers dance in their everyday chairs. That can mean limitations in mobility compared to a chair specifically designed for dance. Whether the wheelchair is powered or non-powered, whether it is weighted more in the front (making it harder to do wheelies), differences in turning radius, tip bars, the types of casters and wheels, the camber of the wheels—all can factor into the sit-down dancer’s range and ease of mobility.

“The chair is really the instrument by which a dancer can achieve their level of performance,” says Verdi-Fletcher. “A more capable dancer in an older chair with limited movement capabilities can be outperformed by a dancer of lesser physical capabilities but with a better chair.”

In teaching sit-down dancers, says Verdi-Fletcher, “the main focus in a classroom setting is looking at what would benefit [them].” She and the other teachers at Dancing Wheels identify the muscles being worked by a stand-up dancer in a given movement and translate that movement into a motion a sit-down dancer can emulate. For example, a plié works a stand-up dancer’s legs to build strength; sit-down dancers would emulate that motion and resistance using their arms, also to build strength. Or sit-down dancers with a broader range of mobility might hold onto a ballet barre and work one or both legs.

“There are so many variables in translation that have to be put together,” says Stilwell. “It is just like the makeup of a sentence; you need the right combination of movements to construct a proper translation.”

‘Wheelchairs are like dance shoes. They are all different and are fitted to the person in the chair.’ —Mary Verdi-Fletcher

It can be mind-boggling to novice sit-down dancers when they see a stand-up dancer moving arms and legs in all directions. How can they translate the movement they are seeing? Stilwell advises those who want to teach sit-down dancers to start slowly, just as they would with any dance student. She teaches her student wheelers basic moves such as a “wheelie bump” (slightly popping the front wheels of the chair off the ground). For this move, the dancer puts her hands on her chair’s wheels, then takes them back to her hips and pushes forward to raise the chair, being careful not to lean forward and fall. Once that is mastered, the student can move on to executing full-blown wheelies.

One student in the Dancing Wheels School who is learning to perfect the art of the wheelie is 13-year-old Alexandra Martinez, a member of Dancing Wheels Junior Dance Company. Born with spina bifida and paralyzed from the knees down, Martinez has been taking dance lessons since age 5 and sees balancing in her chair as one of her toughest obstacles in learning to dance.

Martinez and her sister Gabriella, a 14-year-old stand-up dancer and fellow Junior Company member, take ballet, modern, and hip-hop classes together and help each other with skills such as spotting during pirouettes and proper partnering technique.

“Watch out for your toes,” says Gabriella, referring to sit-down/stand-up partnering. “You can get run over if you are not paying attention.”

Sit-down/stand-up partnering is not traditional counterbalance partnering, says Stilwell. There are the same trust issues, but partnering someone in a chair requires both dancers to know the wheelchair’s capabilities with regard to ease of movement, braking, turning radius, proneness to tipping, and how fast the sit-down dancer can move in the chair.

“When partnering a wheeler, you never want to take their hands behind their head because that will cause them to tip forward,” says Stilwell. “Keep their hands in front of their face so you are not pulling out their shoulders.” As a member of Dancing Wheels’ professional company, Stilwell is all too familiar with what can go wrong in sit-down/stand-up partnering and group work if all parties aren’t mindful of each other. She once suffered a concussion when a wheelchair banged into her head.

Verdi-Fletcher believes there is a mechanism of control and stability that needs to happen in sit-down/stand-up partnering. “When that doesn’t happen, that’s when you see people in wheelchairs being flipped over backwards and stand-ups being run over.”

While much of stand-up dance technique can be translated to the dancer in a wheelchair, the opposite is not always true. Some movements in Verdi-Fletcher’s wheelchair technique, such as “feathering” the chair (so that viewers can hardly see the push) and gliding, can be done only by a sit-down dancer.

The future of translation
The Dancing Wheels Company and School have translated techniques in ballet, modern, jazz, ballroom, and hip-hop that have given opportunities to sit-down dancers they might not otherwise have had. Verdi-Fletcher hopes to include other forms of dance such as tap, if the problem of how to affix taps to a wheelchair can be resolved.

Dancing Wheels is also applying its translation methods to teaching dancers with other disabilities, such as impaired vision or hearing and learning disorders.

Verdi-Fletcher and former Dancing Wheels company member Mark Tomasic are in the beginning stages of codifying Verdi-Fletcher’s wheelchair technique and translations. In the near future they hope to release a DVD and training manual that will allow dance teachers to integrate sit-down dancers into their classes. Some other goals Verdi-Fletcher sees for the project are to offer teacher certification in translation and wheelchair technique, and to make it possible for college and university dance programs to offer degree programs for dancers in wheelchairs.

Verdi-Fletcher’s translations have allowed her company to work with notable choreographers, including Dianne McIntyre,  Pilobolus’ Rebecca Anderson, Nai-Ni Chen, and Keith Young. While many of the choreographers the company brings in have never worked with sit-down dancers, the dancers have the tools to adapt to most anything thrown at them. Thus the choreographers have the freedom to create while the dancers take care of the translations. Verdi-Fletcher says she gets involved in the process only when a choreographer requests it.

Verdi-Fletcher’s translations have also helped and inspired others, like sit-down dancer Alana Wallace. After taking a Dancing Wheels summer workshop, she founded Chicago’s physically integrated company, Dance Detour. Other physically integrated professional dance companies include Axis Dance Company in Oakland, California; Full Radius Dance in Atlanta, Georgia; and Verlezza Dance in Shaker Heights, Ohio, run by former Dancing Wheels co-artistic director Sabatino Verlezza.

Although physically integrated dance does not have a huge presence on the nation’s dance scene, it is on the rise, offering not only its own inherent artistic value but also challenging prevailing attitudes about disability and dance. Like Verdi-Fletcher’s Dancing Wheels, the aforementioned companies and others are giving rise to new methods of translation to meet the needs of their preferred dance styles.

With translation techniques like those developed by Verdi-Fletcher and others, the door to dance has been swung wide open to those with physical handicaps, helping to build a future of acceptance and possibility for everyone who wants to dance.

For more information, visit dancingwheels.org.

Tips for Teaching Sit-Down Dancers

Mary Verdi-Fletcher outlines her teaching approach

1) Don’t think inability. First think the students can, and then determine how far they can go. If a teacher starts out thinking that the students are incapable because they are disabled, then the students will not grow to their full potential.

2) Avoid assumptions. Not everyone in a wheelchair is the same. People arrive at their disabilities from different ways such as birth defects, sickness, and accidents; their physical abilities vary greatly.

3) Always ask. Generally the best way to learn the capabilities of a student with a disability is to ask. Initially students might not feel comfortable telling you everything, but as confidence in your relationship grows, you’ll be able to learn more about what they can and can’t do.

4) Be open. Don’t be afraid to bring these students into a class. Experimenting together can prove rewarding for both student and teacher. Have an open dialogue with non-disabled students and the student with the disability (and parents, if underage) about the newness of the situation, encouraging open-mindedness and patience.

5) Seek training. As in the instruction of all dance techniques, it is beneficial to seek out a school or dance company that offers physically integrated dance training to teachers. A wellspring of knowledge has come from years of experimentation and practice in the field.