Communicating Through Dance
“I am so afraid this history will be lost” said Mary Verdi-Fletcher, the President and Founding Artistic Director of The Dancing Wheels Company & School. For the studio, dance is a form of communication in which performers and audiences make sense of the history of disability rights and the needs of individuals with disabilities. Through performances, the studio resists society’s deficit understanding of disability. From a deficit perspective, individuals with disabilities need to be “fixed” or made “normal”. In contrast, Dancing Wheels emphasizes the need for society to adapt to the bodies and needs of diverse individuals.
The Dancing Wheels Company & School, located in Cleveland OH, is a professional modern dance company integrating professional stand-up and sit-down (wheelchair) dancers. At any given time, the studio employs approximately 13 dancers who work with choreographers to challenge dominant representations of a “normal” body and the opportunities and privileges that accompany it. Dancing Wheels is committed to changing the negativity and fear that surround the education, employment, and inclusion of persons with disabilities in the arts and broader communities. Historically dance is a context composed of a homogenous and elite group of performers. However, Dancing Wheels demonstrates an aesthetic which re-imagines new movement possibilities and integrates diverse people and bodies into dance. For example, many people assume that “you need two legs to be able to dance.” From a communication standpoint, one understands that art has the potential to change thoughts, attitudes and behaviors as artists create conditions where stories connect with audiences.
When Verdi-Fletcher shares her fear that “history would be lost,” she means she is committed to changing the negativity and fear that surround the education, employment, and inclusion of persons with disabilities in the arts and broader communities. From a historical perspective, the Dancing Wheels Company & School relies on dance to tell history and foster ongoing social protest (e.g., create resources to motivate social change). She reminds us that “Children today do not know that 30 years ago there were not curb cuts.”
Verdi-Fletcher’s private life is often used as inspiration for dance. In 1985, mainline busses in Cleveland were not accessible for people with disabilities. Mary Verdi-Fletcher, joined by some of her activist friends with and without disabilities performed a bus protest in downtown in which they captured several busses and demanded that all the busses be made accessible. In 2005, the Dancing Wheels Company re-enacted the 1985 protest on stage with an all-African American dance company to symbolize for audiences the parallels African Americans and individuals with disabilities have faced in their struggles for equality. In the piece they performed in 2005, “Walking On Clouds,”choreographed by David Rousseve, a well-respected choreographer at UCLA, we see that through dance, the studio is challenging understandings about the body and organizational practices that fail to acknowledge and/or respond to different bodies.
In order to respond to different bodies Dancing Wheels uses translation,which involves interpreting movements from a stand-up dancer (one using his or her legs for support) to a sit-down dancer (one using a wheelchair for support). During an interview, Verdi-Fletcher indicated that initially such translations were necessary because individuals in wheelchairs had been all but absent in modern dance; “The technique of translation, the only way to dance was to learn from the stand-ups at the time. I learned to move in unison with them by watching their movements and adapting them to me.” The company now plays with what Mark Tomasic described as reverse translation, or “translating movement from a sit-down dancer to a stand-up dance.”
Through dance and creativity of choreographers and dancers, the studio is remembering history, as well as re- shaping the worlds people live in together. How are societal values expressed through dance? How are identities expressed through dance? How is history remembered through dance? Dancing Wheels positions these questions center stage for disability rights activists and the public at large. Through 30 years of alternative expressions of the body, combined with aesthetic creativity, Dancing Wheels has worked to change movements that can be considered or included in dance. Through its performances, Dancing Wheels has been able to expand our vision of communication, art, beauty, and activism.