On wheels, on foot, ballet company dazzles U’s eyes

by Joe Carlson

Of the three dancers who made their way onstage, only two danced on their toes. The third, Mary Verdi-Fletcher, coasted in her wheelchair.
“People need to see that they can achieve their dreams and aspirations — but not without a lot of hard work and dedication,” said Mary Verdi-Fletcher, Dancing Wheels founder and dancer.
Dancing Wheels performed a dance and spoken-word routine Wednesday night in the St. Paul Student Center theater.
The group, composed of six full-time professional dancers with and without disabilities, was founded by Verdi-Fletcher in 1980. Dancing Wheels performs more than 150 performances annually, with audiences numbering almost 90,000 people each year.
The program was organized by the Worldspan Resource Center and the Disabled Student Cultural Center, both University organizations.
“The purpose is to provide a professional dance program that breaks down the preconceived notions that people have about people with disabilities,” Worldspan intern Jamie Musser said.
“The performance is trying to show that disabilities are not limitations; they add to the program instead,” Musser said.
Verdi-Fletcher said she was inspired to dance as a child, despite the spina bifida that forced her to rely on a wheelchair, when she and her brother created their own routines. Their mother was a professional dancer.
“There was something inside me that wanted to dance,” she said.
Originally, Verdi-Fletcher started dancing disco, but she soon saw that “dancing could be done if you were standing or sitting.”
Verdi-Fletcher trained with various non-disabled professional dancers and individual choreographers in a modern classical style derived from the contraction style of May O’Donnel and translated by Dancer Sabatino Verlezza.
Verlezza is an accomplished dancer and does all of the choreography for the company. He described the first time he danced with Verdi-Fletcher:
“It was wonderful … I could do things that I could not do with my other partners,” Verlezza said. “It was a wonderful choreographic opportunity, which I took advantage of.”
Student center coordinator Jason Hancock said the performance was brought to the University because of its singular nature.
“I don’t believe we’ve had anything like a wheelchair ballet on campus before,” Hancock said.
Many people who see the ballet for the first time are surprised by it. Full-time Dancing Wheels dancer Edwina King said “a lot of the time, they say it’s not what they thought it was going to be.”
Also, “they think it will be less artistic than it is,” Verdi-Fletcher said.
Spectator Kathy Strom said, “I was very impressed by how professional it was … it flows just like any other ballet.”
The performance was a combination of dancing and spoken word, “so that we get more interaction between the dancers and the audience,” said Jane Albright, Disabled Student Cultural Center Executive Board member.
The company, which became a part of the Cleveland San Jose Ballet in 1990, performs around the country.