BY SILVA LAUKKANEN; EDITED BY EMMALY WIEDERHOLT; ILLUSTRATION BY LIZ BRENT-MALDONADO
Mary Verdi-Fletcher is the founding artistic director of the Dancing Wheels Company & School in Cleveland, Ohio, and has been a pioneer in physically integrated dance for four decades. After starting the Dancing Wheels Company in 1980, Mary saw a need for more access to dance training, which led to the creation of the School of Dancing Wheels in 1990. Also an arts administrator and advocate, she has contributed to the development of state and national programs for arts and disability service organizations. She has worked to help pass significant legislation, including the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Listen to the audobook recording of Mary Verdi-Fletcher’s interview here!
To learn more about the Discussing Disability in Dance Book, visit here!
How did you get into dance and what have been some highlights in your dance history?
I grew up in an artistic family; my mother was a dancer and my father was a musician. I was born with my disability, but my mother fostered my desire to follow in her footsteps. She would tell me bedtime stories of when she and my dad would travel across America in a vaudeville group. I used braces and crutches at the time, and my mother would put together little dances on me and my brother in our family room.
I just wanted to move, and I would break my brace all the time. My parents kept repairing it and finally got me a really strong brace. Then I broke my leg three times. At that point, they told me I had to use a wheelchair, so I started using a wheelchair when I was 12. I loved to watch American Bandstand and would groove to the music, and before long I broke the wheel off my wheelchair. Even to this day, I have a hard time watching dance because my body wants to join. If I go to a ballet, I twitch through the whole thing. I did back then as well.
In the early 70s, there was a resurgence of community dances. It was the beginning of the disco days. One day, this guy came up to me and asked if I wanted to dance. I said, “I don’t know if I can,” but we started experimenting and my wheels started gliding. I was doing the same partnering as the standup girls but using my wheels. It felt natural and unique, like skating and dancing at the same time. It had such a fluidity and speed to it.
I got hooked and started looking at how I could do various dances. I was going to different clubs, and soon everybody wanted to partner with me. My best friend’s husband was a good dancer, and we started to partner together regularly. We got very good.
Dance Fever was a competition show like Dancing with the Stars that was going around the country. The producer would travel to different states to select dancers to be on the show. I called up and asked to participate, and they took our names down to audition. We showed up that night and they were floored that I was in a wheelchair. They didn’t know what to do. We had put together a routine with a smash ending. My partner had been a gymnast, and at the end of our dance he would take a flying leap from across the stage, jump onto my armrests, and over my head. The crowd went wild. There were 2,000 people in the audience, and we got a standing ovation. Looking back now, there are so many more dance moves we could have done, but at the time we were blazing the trail.
We were chosen as alternates to be on the show. Interestingly, the producer said to me, “You know, this was really difficult. If I didn’t choose you, they would have said it was because you’re handicapped, and if I chose you, they would say it’s because you’re handicapped.” I had never thought about it that way. This was before the Americans with Disabilities Act.
We started to get on a lot of different television shows, and then we were chosen to be on a Walt Disney show that highlighted all kinds of acts. There was even a dog act. I was talking to the dog’s mom who was telling me he performed all over the country. I thought, “If that dog can do it, then so can I.” She told me how her dog was sponsored by a dog food company. So I went to a wheelchair company, Invacare, and pitched my idea of doing shows and talking about their wheelchair if they gave me a new one, and the traveling would be paid for by their sponsorship. And they went for it. We did 72 shows a year all over the country. Before you know it, we got on bigger shows like CNN and Good Morning America. People saw us and wanted to be a part. Dancing Wheels was born.
At first we were just a dance company that got paid to perform. I wanted to reach more people who couldn’t necessarily afford to pay us and go to schools, so in 1990 I turned Dancing Wheels into a 501c3 and licensed and trademarked it. I was connected with Cleveland Ballet, and they were looking to expand their outreach and educational programs. They bought the license to be called Cleveland Ballet Dancing Wheels. In doing so, I told them they had to hire me to manage and develop their program. I worked there for 10 years.
By that time, we had really grown. We went from a small group to a full company of eight to 10 dancers. I started producing and commissioning pieces. I hired Sabatino Verlezza from New York to be the associate artistic director, and his wife Barbara Allegra Verlezza ran the school. They were with Dancing Wheels for almost 10 years. Sabotino did beautiful choreography and had amazing vision.
Dancers have come and gone over the years. Some have been with me a very long time. I have several dancers who I am still really good friends with. Our repertoire has over 72 pieces in it now. It’s hard to believe it’s been 40 years.
How would you describe your current dance practice?
The company takes class everyday Monday through Friday. Typically, it’s ballet, modern, or contemporary, and we also have a conditioning class. Our 12 to 3 p.m. time slot is always immersed in restaging works or the creative process of developing new works. The dancers are full time, so they work 12 months out of the year and have paid vacations, holidays, and sick days. Nobody gets paid a tremendous amount, but it’s consistent. The dancers can rely on that base salary, and then they get paid extra for performances and teaching.
When you tell people you are a dancer, what are the most common reactions you receive?
What I love is when parents tell little kids at a show, “You know, she’s a dancer.” The kids will cock their head. You can see they don’t want to be rude, but they don’t know what their mother or father is talking about. Then I do a little twirl with them and they start to get it.
What are some ways people discuss dance with regards to disability that you feel carry problematic implications or assumptions?
The number one thing is they think that if they’ve seen one physically integrated dance company, they’ve seen them all. That’s an issue with presenters too: “Oh, we presented Dancing Wheels, so we don’t need to present AXIS Dance Company,” or vice versa. I’ve found over the years that attitude has narrowed the opportunities for touring. Presenters will book several modern or ballet companies, but only one physically integrated dance company. They think it’s all the same.
Do you believe there are adequate training opportunities for dancers with disabilities? If not, what areas would you specifically like to see improved?
More and more now, integrated companies are providing training. They almost all have summer intensives. Compared to when I started dancing, there are leaps and bounds more training opportunities, but not at the university level.
We did our first level one certification of the Dancing Wheels teacher training method recently and learned a lot by doing it. We’re offering another level one certification soon. I notice that a lot of people in other countries revere our company and our teaching process more than people in the US.
We’re always going to be at a standstill at the university level as long as dance faculty are saying it’s too cumbersome and takes too much time to teach students with disabilities, or it’s going to negatively affect the non-disabled students. It doesn’t have to if you know the technique of translation. Ours isn’t the only one, but teachers need to understand there are ways to do it.
Sometimes I just want to throw my hands up. I’m tired of preaching this.
Would you like to see disability in dance assimilated into the mainstream?
It is in the mainstream in that Dancing Wheels competes with other dance companies for opportunities, whether they’re disabled or not. We’re in showcases and mainstage concerts. It’s a competitive field, and we participate in the mainstream in that way.
There’s a whole split where it seems like the younger mindset wants to put their disability first. They are proud of their disability and want to be known as a disabled dancer or disabled choreographer. But then there are mindsets like mine where I happen to be disabled, but first and foremost, I’m a dancer and artistic director. I never say I’m a disabled artistic director.
I go back to the African American community. How many say, “I’m a Black choreographer”? People know they’re Black. Seeing is believing. If you’re a dancer, you’re a dancer. You don’t have to make your identity so in-your-face all the time. But those people have a right to their opinion, and I have a right to mine.
If a presenter brings us in, we’re going to put on a high-quality show that happens to have some wheelchair dancers and standup dancers working together. It will be artistically high level and entertaining. For me, entertainment means we impact people, and the audience will have a feeling, whether it’s sorrow or joy.
What is your preferred term for the field?
I use “physically integrated dance.” It’s a much broader term that connotes more than just wheelchair dancers and standup dancers. Our company is integrated in a lot of different ways beyond disability: gender, ethnicity, age. When I explain to kids what “physically integrated dance” is, I break it down. I ask them what “integrated” means. It means being together. What does “physical” refer to? The body. We’re all different bodies moving together. And then the kids get it.
In your perspective, is the field improving with time?
Academia is not, and I think presenters are afraid. I think presenters are afraid of dance in general. It’s far more expensive than presenting music or theater. Our heyday in terms of touring was before 9/11. Now, presenters want to know if we’ll sell seats like Alvin Ailey.
The amount of integrated companies, as well as dancers and choreographers with disabilities, really has improved. They are taking hold and developing themselves. But they are still not a commodity. I go to hire a wheelchair dancer and it’s like pulling teeth. And then I often have to train the wheelchair dancers from scratch. It takes a long time to develop a dancer.
To learn more about Dancing Wheels, visit dancingwheels.org.
To learn more about the Discussing Disability in Dance Book Project, visit here!
This interview was conducted in April 2020.