Dancing Wheels, the World-Renowned Dance Company Based Right Here in CLE

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Here's something you may not know about me: One of the issues nearest & dearest to my heart is that of disability rights advocacy.

In 2007, when I started my first job at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, one of the issues in my legislative portfolio was disability rights. I worked with the late Rabbi Lynne Landsberg, who became my friend & mentor, on passage of the ADA Amendments Act of 2008, which amended the Americans with Disabilities Act to better protect people with disabilities. One of the biggest honors of my life was to be on Capitol Hill the day that bill became law.

These days, I serve on my company's Disability Inclusion Committee, & I'm still involved in & passionate about disability inclusion. I was thrilled, then, when I was invited to attend a rehearsal of Dancing Wheels, an internationally renowned dance company based in Cleveland - started 38 years ago by one of the world's first professional wheelchair dancers.

Mary Verdi-Fletcher, president & founding artistic director of Dancing Wheels, started the first physically integrated dance company in 1990, & it's since become the top physically integrated dance company in the country.

Mary, whose father was a musician & mother was a dancer, was born with her disability & started using a wheelchair at age 12. Though there were no opportunities then for dancers with disabilities, she credits her mom with her passion for dance.

"She really fostered that love of music and dance," Mary told me. "She used to make up little dances that she would have my brother & I do in our living room. I used braces or crutches when I was little, so she’d have him do lifts in the air. I just loved it.”

Now, Dancing Wheels is the country's premiere physically integrated dance company, with 10 full-time "stand-up" & "sit-down" dancers, as the company calls them, including Mary herself. The company does ~70 performances a year, along with education, training, & more.

They're currently rehearsing for their upcoming gala, Reverse*Reboot*Reveal, a world-premiere performance that will feature the work of some of the nation's most celebrated disabled choreographers. It's coming up on June 14th at Playhouse Square.

I almost cried while watching them rehearse.

I thought about how much I loved dance growing up: I was accepted into a competitive, traveling dance group just before I was diagnosed with scoliosis. I'd already started to worry that my body type wasn't "right" for ballet - I was never going to be thin & lithe & sinewy like my classmates - but I loved dancing, so I'd stuck it out. Until I couldn't anymore.

Watching the dancers from Dancing Wheels, I was struck by ability, not by disability; these are professional-grade dancers, committed & practiced & graceful & beautiful. Where the world has typically said, "Dancers all have this body," Dancing Wheels says, "Oh, yeah? Watch this."

Their upcoming performance will feature performances choreographed by three of the country's top choreographers with disabilities: 
  • Marc Brew, an internationally renowned choreographer & artistic director of AXIS Dance Company in Oakland, CA
  • Antoine Hunter, a Bay Area native & award-winning African-American deaf producer, choreographer, & dance instructor who founded & directs the Urban Jazz Dance Company
  • Laurel Lawson, a Full Radius Dance company member whose works also plays bluegrass & jazz, & is a member of the USA Women's Para-Ice Sled Hockey team
Tickets are still available for Reverse*Reboot*Reveal; GA tickets are $40, & VIP tickets are $125. The performance will be wrapped before & after with a VIP benefit gala sponsored by Sherwin-Williams; after the performance, all attendees are invited to meet the dancers & choreographers for a dessert & champagne celebration.

I'm so disappointed I can't make it to this performance, but I hope that by sharing it here, I can compel a few of you to attend it - because I know it's going to be a beautiful, powerful show.

I'm beyond thrilled to have discovered Dancing Wheels, to have connected with Mary & her company, & to figure out how I can support & engage with them going forward. It's so incredibly impressive that this unique & world-renowned dance company is based here in Cleveland - & this is definitely not the last time I plan to interact with them. I can't wait to watch them again!

Below are some more photos from the rehearsal I watched, & stay tuned for a piece from me on WISH Cleveland about Dancing Wheels, too - which will include more from Mary Verdi-Fletcher, as well as from Sara Lawrence-Sucato, company member & tour manager.

Learn more about Dancing Wheels at dancingwheels.org, and purchase tickets to Reverse*Reboot*Reveal online. 

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