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Wheelchair Dance Turns 30

October 4, 2010

CHICAGO - October marks the 30th anniversary of wheelchair dance. It was started by a young woman who felt compelled to dance even though she had been born with a disability that paralyzed her legs, back in the 1970s when children with disabilities sometimes weren't even allowed in regular public schools. Mary Verdi-Fletcher competed in a televised dance contest in her wheelchair, with an able-bodied partner, and won.

"At that moment I knew that I never wanted to stop dancing."

Verdi-Fletcher started her own dance company, "Dancing Wheels" in Cleveland. Since that time, similar companies have sprouted up in Chicago and cities all over the United States. Now they include people with all kinds of disabilities dancing on stage with able-bodied dancers; they call it physically integrated dance. Disability rights activists see this art form as another way to break old stereotypes and advance the civil rights of people with disabilities.

Alana Wallace, who had been paralyzed by polio at age five, was inspired to start her own dance company, Dance Detour, in Chicago after Dancing Wheels performed at Columbia College with Ben Vereen.

"I saw dancers who were being lifted in and out of their chairs. I saw dancers who were spinning and twirling who were graceful. I could not believe my eyes."

Dance Detour's physically integrated dance, Wallace says, celebrates differences, a far cry from the way she grew up. Wallace remembers being placed on a chair for photographs, with her wheelchair and crutches hidden away. A signature piece called "If Only" does just the opposite.

"The wheelchair, ironically enough, is a key component of the piece. It's actually on the stage, lying on its side. And the wheelchair itself is representing a message in the piece."

There are now around 100 physically integrated dance companies in Illinois and around the nation. The message for the 30th anniversary of physically integrated dance is: Everyone can dance.

Wallace is at dancedetour.org. Verdi-Fletcher is at
dancingwheels.org

Mary Anne Meyers, Public News Service - IL