Mary Verdi-Fletcher, President/Founding Artistic Director, has been a pioneering force in the development and success of physically integrated dance worldwide for over 4 decades. As one of the first and foremost professional wheelchair dancers, she has worked and studied with such esteemed artists as Donald Byrd, Donald McKayle, David Roussève, Dianne McIntyre, Dennis Nahat, Keith Young, Ben Vereen, Christopher Reeve, David Dorfman and many others. After the inception of the Dancing Wheels Company in 1980, Mary soon realized the dire need for training and career advancement for dancers of all ability levels, which ultimately lead to the creation of the multi-arts Dancing Wheels School in 1990. Attracting students from around the globe, the school rapidly became the most sought-after site for training in the formal techniques of physically integrated dance. As an educator, Mary has conducted master classes, lectures and has consulted with notable arts institutions across several continents. Also, a tireless arts administrator and advocate, Mary has contributed to the development of state and national programs for arts and disability service organizations. She has worked to help pass significant pieces of legislation including the Americans with Disabilities Act established in 1990, which has paved the way for others in their quest for full and equal access.
Prior to founding The Dancing Wheels Company & School, Mary Verdi-Fletcher helped to create the first Independent Living Center in the State of Ohio. In this role as the first Attendant Care Coordinator, Mary developed statewide training programs and curriculum that was later used throughout the State of Ohio. She later went on to become the first Development Director for the organization, raising over $100,000 in her first year. As President of the Advocates for Disabled Ohioans organization, she led a statewide advocacy effort that bussed 100 individuals with disabilities to the State Capital to give testimony on behalf of a piece of legislation, ultimately leading to a statewide personal care assistance program. This legislation was the catalyst that allowed for the deinstitutionalization and independent lifestyle for thousands of Ohioans with disabilities. Mary and her compatriots also took a militant stand to ensure equal opportunities for people with disabilities who wanted to ride public transportation. This action led to making every public bus in the nation accessible to everyone, as she is fondly called the “Rosa Parks of Cleveland.”
As the President/Founding Artistic Director of The Dancing Wheels Company & School, Mary works countless hours to impact the lives of thousands of children and adults each year. She secures funding for over 40% of her students with disabilities and those with socio-economic challenges to be able to attend the Dancing Wheels School on scholarship. She leads a full-time Company of 10 stand-up and sit-down dancers who travel the globe performing and educating hundreds of thousands of individuals with and without disabilities. The Company tours to over 70 locations each year offering first-rate performances from some of the nation’s paramount choreographers. Since the Company’s inception in 1980 more than 6 million individuals have witnessed the beauty and unique performances of her revolutionary troupe. From the stage to the screen, the Dancing Wheels Company & School has made an indelible mark on the way society views the artistry and ability of people who live with a disability. She has also assisted in the development of three other physically integrated dance companies in America by providing guidance, models and program development. Mary, along with Artistic Advisor Mark Tomasic, co-authored and produced a manual and DVD on the training methodologies taught by the Company which has been a sought-after tool for training hundreds of individuals around the world.
As an educator, Mary has lead hundreds of workshops and teacher training sessions throughout the world. She had opened the eyes of hundreds of educators to the possibilities that are available through the artform of physically integrated dance. Teachers ands students have benefitted from her “see the possible” attitude as she has found ways to see and develop the full potential in all those that who have been touched by Dancing Wheels.
In 2015, Mary’s inventive and pioneering spirit unveiled a new branding campaign for the Company as The World Center for Integrated Dance & Arts Access and in 2016 opened Dancing Wheels’ specific training to the world through virtual classes offered to those unable to travel to the Cleveland-based studios for training. Her quest to provide equal access for training has continued with the development of the Dancing Wheels Physically Integrated Dance Teacher Certification program.
Throughout her career, Mary has been featured internationally on television, in numerous digital and print media articles and has been honored with numerous awards including; An Emmy as the on camera host and narrator for an arts series entitled “Short Cuts to Happiness”, the Outstanding Young Clevelander Award, the James Brady Award for Rehabilitation, the YWCA Woman of Achievement Award, National Rehabilitation Achievement Award, Northern Ohio Magazine Achievement Award for 25 years of service (2005), Ohio Theater Alliance Award. She was one of 14 finalists for the National Leadership for a Changing World Award, a finalist for the Henry Betts Award, winner of the Ms. Wheelchair Ohio competition and First Runner up to Ms. Wheelchair America.
Mary’s current and past professional affiliations include Executive Committee Member for the 2009 National Careers in Arts Summit at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Program Committee Member for The Association of Performing Arts Presenters Annual Conference, Advisory Board Member for The Arc of Greater Cleveland, Advisory Board of the Singing Angels, Board Member for Ohio Arts Presenters, member of the Board of Directors for Professional Flair, Inc. and on the Executive Board of Directors for Dance/USA.
In 2014, Mary was awarded the Governor’s Award for Arts Education in Ohio, the Ohio Dance Award for major contributions to dance in Ohio and the Henry Viscardi Achievement Awards, which pays tribute to exemplary leaders in the disability community who have had a profound impact on shaping attitudes, raising awareness and improving the quality of life of people with disabilities. In 2016, she was honored with the Cleveland Arts Prize Lifetime Achievement Award and in 2017, the Girl Scouts of North East Ohio’s Woman of Distinction Award. In 2018, Mary was a Dance/USA Trustees Awardee: Pioneer in the Field of Integrated Dance and Activist for Disability Rights and received the YWCA Woman of Achievement Award. In 2019, Mary served on the Steering Committee to bring the National Dance USA Conference to Cleveland and directed the opening night ceremonies for more than 450 people attending the conference. Mary is featured in New York Times bestseller “In the Company of Women” by author Khushwant Singh and recently in this publication “Boss Ladies of CLE: Stories from 20 Leading Women in Their Own Words” by Maggie Sullivan.
Our 41st season brought a wellspring of opportunities for the Dancing Wheels Company & School. Our plan to keep operations intact throughout the pandemic proved to be a solid course of business. As soon as travel opened up, our dancers were at the ready to accept all performance opportunities that came our way!
The season began with the August 2021 in-person, live-performance premiere of A Midsummer Night’s Dream choreographed by Catherine Meredith and presented at Cain Park. Then in four months, from August to November, the company completed tours to nine cities starting in New York City and concluding in León, Mexico. After a much-needed holiday break, the dancers went into creative and choreographic mode by reimagining their experiences in Mexico with a concert entitled Memories of Mexico. The performance at Rainey Institute was a full evening concert featuring choreography by and with Dancing Wheels Company dancers and guest appearances by the Dancing Wheels Performance Ensemble and dance students from Rainey Institute. It was a beautiful evening full of expressive experiences reminiscent of the traditions and cultures of that amazing city.
Balancing the virtual world with live audience participation has been an exciting challenge throughout the year. With many folks still tentative about in-person meetings, performances, and classes, we have remained flexible and committed to our patrons, volunteers, and students near and far with new and ever-changing technology—which we call “CyberLive”—that brings us into the homes and workplaces of those unable to attend our programming in person. This approach has broadened our reach and increased our visibility by leaps and bounds with virtual showcases, classes, and performance opportunities.
In the Spring of 2022, more nationwide performance opportunities came our way, and the creation of our National Physically Integrated Dance Festival was in full swing. Through an adjudication process, Heidi Latsky Dance Company of New York City and Karen Peterson & Dancers hailing from Miami, FL were invited to join the Dancing Wheels Company in a three-city tour entitled Beyond Barriers, Boundaries & Belief! This monumental tour was launched on June 10th in Cleveland at Playhouse Square’s exquisite Allen Theatre. The concert included our benefit gala and featured three world premiere pieces by Donald Byrd, Brian Murphy, and Mark Tomasic. The evening and subsequent tours were memorable in so many ways. It proved to be an amazing exchange of artistry and the perfect vehicle to develop new friendships and reignite precious relationships from the past.
Once again, this season demonstrated that we are a strong resilient team as a whole, and collectively we have skills, experiences, and knowledge that go far beyond our expectations for the good of all.
We have opened our hearts and minds to overcoming obstacles, and, in turn, a plethora of opportunities have come our way. Those of you who help us to believe in the possibilities have given us the power and strength to continue down this road to full and equal access for all, and for this we are most grateful.
Your dedication and support of our mission to educate, advocate, and entertain through our artistry has not only kept us going, but has been the catalyst for growth and prosperity. We have felt your love and encouragement in great abundance. Together, with fierce and dogged determination, we will continue to rise above all obstacles and triumphantly conquer challenges that may come our way.
Here’s to another four decades and beyond!
With Gratitude and Admiration,
President/Founding Artistic Director
Thomas P. Gilligan
(Updated October 2022)