Dancing Wheels Founder

Performance photo of Dancing Wheels Founder Mary Verdi-Fletcher in her wheelchair dancing with partner Matt

Leading the Legacy

Mary Verdi-Fletcher headshot

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.

Dear Friends,

Making Memories That Keep Us in Motion—the theme of our 42nd season’s annual report—signifies how and why we make memories and what those memories do for our lives. In addition to memory’s role in allowing people to understand, navigate, and make predictions about the world, our memories provide the foundation for a rich sense of oneself and one’s life. The average person has 86 billion neurons and 10 trillion synapses which contribute to our ability to remember. Memories are acquired through visual, acoustic, semantic, and tactile interaction. That is why art, for so many of us, is at the forefront of making and keeping memories.

It is our pleasure to offer you a peak into the memories we have made during our 2022/2023 season. We hope that these memories are long lasting and bring inspiration, comfort, and greater understanding of today’s world as we navigate the challenges and opportunities of our daily lives.

In January of 2023, after two years of creative collaborations, we were able to bring to fruition our performance/presentation of Making Memories: A Journey through Dementia. This immersive production was made possible through the generosity and amazing support of the New England Foundation for the Arts’ National Dance Project and through the many partnerships with our community of caregivers, medial staff, and organizations that serve families and patients with Alzheimer’s and dementia. Together with Mark Tomasic, choreographer and Dancing Wheels artistic advisor, we exceeded our expectations for the project bringing together hundreds of people within our community and offering them hope and solace. Throughout our 2023-2024 season, the project will continue to make memorable impressions as we tour it internationally and share the program with hundreds more people.

In June, our Legendary Ladies of Jazz! gala brought soulful memories of days gone by with our tribute to the dynamic women of color who revolutionized the 1920’s–1950’s jazz era. The vibrant songs of Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Abbey Lincoln, and Nina Simone gave audience members an appreciation for how women of color shaped a male-dominated period.

Each year we travel the land touring many of our concert dance works. During our audience talkbacks after the concerts, we hear the incredible impact that the stunning choreographic works have on those who witness the energy and power surging from our dancers. One audience member said, “I came to this show, through an invitation from my granddaughter, not knowing what to expect. After seeing this magnificent performance, I know that I will never forget what I saw, and I will tell everyone I know about it. Everyone should see this company!”

It is our hope that every performance, teaching engagement, and special event leaves you and so many other faithful friends, with uplifting, long-lasting memories and a true appreciation of the power that the arts have on all of us.

With sincere appreciation,

Mary Verdi-Fletcher

President/Founding Artistic Director

Ross Cameron

Board Chair

(Updated July 2023)