When Mary Verdi-Fletcher was a child, there weren’t many – OK, any – opportunities for people with physical disabilities to learn dance. Unlike her able-bodied friends who took classes at local studios, Verdi-Fletcher’s love of dance began at home – inspired by her mother, a retired vaudeville dancer.
“Back then, people with disabilities really didn’t have the same opportunities [as today], and children, in particular, were very isolated,” says Verdi-Fletcher, who was born with spina bifida. “I was lucky, though, because my mother fostered that dream of dancing.”
Her mother choreographed dance routines for Verdi-Fletcher and her brother, who was able-bodied; they even learned to do lifts together, the way they saw professional dancers do on TV.
Verdi-Fletcher, who walked with the assistance of crutches and leg braces as a young child, started using a wheelchair at age 12. “I would watch dance all the time on television and dream about how I would dance if I wasn’t disabled,” she remembers. “I would make up all these dances in my thoughts; I would watch Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and I would see myself as Ginger Rogers.”
At the time, such a dream seemed impossible – but Verdi-Fletcher went on to become one of the world’s first professional wheelchair dancers.
Dancing Wheels, the Cleveland-based dance company she founded in 1990, was the country’s first physically integrated dance company, featuring professional dancers both with and without disabilities. Sara Lawrence-Sucato, a longtime Dancing Wheels company member and its tour manager, explains, “We use those two terms, ‘physical’ meaning ‘bodies’, and ‘integrated’ meaning ‘coming together’ – people of different body types, with and without disabilities, coming together.”
Though other dance companies with similar missions have since taken the stage, Dancing Wheels was the first – and it remains one of the world’s premier physically integrated companies.
So how did Verdi-Fletcher go from dancing at home to international renown? It started with the TV show Dance Fever, which held auditions in Willoughby in 1980. Verdi-Fletcher and a male friend auditioned before a 2,000-person audience, dazzling the producer with their stage interpretation of The Weather Girls’ “It’s Raining Men” and ultimately securing a spot as alternates on the show.
Though they never appeared on Dance Fever, the media buzz that followed their audition changed Verdi-Fletcher’s life.
That year, her partner and she did 72 performances, all while she held down a full-time job. Recognizing the demand for – and interest in – an inclusive dance company, Verdi-Fletcher soon opened Dancing Wheels. To do so, she tapped into knowledge and connections she’d gained in her administrative work with the Cleveland Ballet, which helped her launch a dance company in the style of large, professional companies.
“I established a company that was… I wouldn’t say competitive, necessarily, but it was the same as a non-disabled company,” Verdi-Fletcher says. “We were on the big stages, just like any other dance company.”
Today, Dancing Wheels includes 10 full-time dancers, three of whom use wheelchairs (including Verdi-Fletcher herself). They do 70 to 80 performances each year, pulling from an extensive repertory that includes 68 dances to songs ranging from Cyndi Lauper’s “La Vie en Rose” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Chicken Lips” to the classical sounds of Vivaldi and Beethoven.
Lawrence-Sucato, who’s in her thirteenth season with Dancing Wheels, explains how her fellow dancers’ wheelchairs are incorporated into their performances. “Sometimes we refer to the wheelchair as a third partner,” she says, “like it has a mind of its own. We need to respond to it and treat it a certain way, just like another person.”
When she joined Dancing Wheels in 2006, Lawrence-Sucato – a graduate of Mercyhurst College with a degree in dance teaching and choreography – had extensive professional dance training but no specific experience with integrated dance. Now, she says, she has become an advocate for people with disabilities simply by working so closely with other company members.
“We’re family. We travel together, and we work together, so we need to know about each other, physically,” she says. “When we perform, we have to know about each other’s bodies and how to treat each other – and we’re ambassadors for people with disabilities, regardless of having a disability or not.”
Dancing Wheels, whose company members lecture and perform at school programs and other events, also focuses on arts access. The company offers a summer dance intensive, a physically integrated dance training manual, and virtual dance classes; soon, they’ll offer teacher training certification in physically integrated dance.
And while Verdi-Fletcher is thrilled with Dancing Wheels’ success, she’s just as happy that she’s able to dance the way she always dreamed about. “I didn’t set out to create a new art form or an integrated dance company,” she says. “I just wanted to dance.”
Dancing Wheels, a nonprofit that relies largely on grants and donations, is rehearsing for its gala event, Reverse*Reboot*Reveal, June 14 at Playhouse Square. This world-premiere performance will feature the work of three internationally renowned choreographers with disabilities. Tickets are available online.