Mary Verdi-Fletcher, President/Founding Artistic Director, has been a pioneering force in the development and success of physically integrated dance worldwide for over 3 decades. As one of the first and foremost professional wheelchair dancers, she has worked and studied with such esteemed artists as Donald McKayle, David Rousseve, Dianne McIntyre, Dennis Nahat, Keith Young, Ben Vereen, Christopher Reeve and many others. After the inception of the Dancing Wheels Company in 1980, Mary 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 a member 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 15 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 best choreographers. Since the Company’s inception in 1980 more than 5 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 her Artistic Advisor, Mark Tomasic, co-authored and produced a manual and DVD on the training methodologies taught by the Company.
Throughout her career, Mary has been featured international 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 finalist 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 Kenny 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 Organizational Member of 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.
The 2015/2016 season is one that we will not soon forget. Being our 35th anniversary season and the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, we experienced events and memories that will last a lifetime. We created six new works (all world premieres) right here in Greater Cleveland, we collaborated with incredible artists, we launched our new branding image, and yes of course, celebrated like it was 1980!
We began the season with a “Best of Accessible Cleveland” ADA luncheon in conjunction with the InterContinental Hotel. It was an amazing experience for us to host our keynote speaker Judith Heumann, an incredible advocate and an old friend of mine who works for the federal government in international affairs as it relates to persons with disabilities. Our media host Monica Robbins, a passionate and knowledgeable emcee, graciously brought the program full circle. This event was followed by ADA Cleveland’s daylong event with over 35 disability service organizations and hundreds of participants at University Circle. We were proud to perform with both the Company and the kids enrolled in our summer camp. I was also privileged to give an address recapping the societal environment prior to the passage of the ADA.
October was truly unbelievable!! We created an “Arts for All Parade” and gathering at the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame to launch our new branding as the World Center for Integrated dance & Arts Access. As if that wasn’t enough, we celebrated the ADA with the “Lasting Legacy Concert & Tour” featuring newly created works from Mark Tomasic, Catherine Meredith, Sara Swenson, and Heidi Latsky, and restaged works from David Rousseve and Dianne McIntryre. The concert, held at the illustrious Allen Theatre at Playhouse Square, was an evening filled with passion, artistry– even humor. Mark Tomasic toasted the year and all that has been accomplished over the past 35. The weeks that followed included many tours of the “Lasting Legacy Concert” and even a flash mob at Public Hall to celebrate Cleveland’s Disability Awareness Day.
November brought about one of those marvelous experiences that doesn’t often come our way. In celebration once again of the ADA and our 35th anniversary, Dancing Wheels was commissioned by the Canton Symphony Orchestra to create a new dance work to an original score and to perform it together at their home in Canton. Choreographer Robert Wesner created the new work entitled “Light Fall” and it joyously all came together with artistry and passion from the more than 100 artists involved.
Our seasons never skip a beat when it comes to touring. Our wheels are always in motion with 14 Company members and we have even achieved three performances in three different cities all at the same time. We take pride in our ability to bring our performances to the masses and appeal to a very wide range of audiences in venues across America. From guest appearances, full mainstage performances, and corporate events, we have entertained more than 5 million audience members since our inception in 1980. Between the touring, we once again hosted our “Night at the Races” event in February which achieved record highs in attendance and fundraising– thanks to all of our fun fans who supported this annual event! In the spring our tours continued throughout the nation, but came back home for a warm and welcoming performance for Chagrin Arts in Chagrin Falls.
The School of Dancing Wheels’ expansive residencies and classes kept our teachers busier than ever, taking on new schools and expanding our teacher training. We successfully conducted our first 2-day/3-session teacher training in conjunction with Cleveland State University’s dance department. Interested participants came from around the State and outside of Ohio to learn and grow in the methodologies of physically integrated dance.
The celebrations for 35th anniversary season concluded in rare form when the “35 & Stayin Alive” theme brought energy and synergy to the Nautica Complex! The night was filled with gaming, an outstanding silent auction that generated a record-high in donations, a fast and furious dance performance by the Company & School (intertwined with messages from the choreographers who created the dances), and a light show that not only lit up the space but all 20 cakes atop each table. Party goers danced the night away to the fabulous sound of Kyle Primus and the K Street Band. It was a huge undertaking, but with the support of our board members, table hosts, events committee members, staff and dancers, I can truly say that it will be one of those events that you wonder how it can be topped. Our supporters keep saying it was the “best ever”!
In the spirit of onward and upward thinking, this coming season brings us the world premiere performance of “Labyrinth” at Cain Park on August 12, choreographed by our very own Dezare Foster. There will be the return of “The Snowman”, both on tour to Toledo and at home at the Saint Ignatius Breen Center from December 1-3. We will be unveiling virtual dance classes, a unique improvisational chamber concert with two inventive musicians, another fun-filled “Night at the Races”, and a spring fling that will keep us “Forever Young.”
We love bringing new and innovative performances to our audiences, we thrive on making our events “the best ever!”, we look for new ideas and discoveries from those of you who have wide and diverse experiences, and we never take for granted the true dedication and ongoing support from all of you who believe that we can achieve. Achieve through our artistry, our desire to educate and inspire, and our ability to rise to great heights for more than three decades.
We became the World Center for Integrated Dance & Art Access this year and in doing so, we have opened the doors of possibilities globally to throngs of people with and without disabilities and are truly at the cusp of changing the face of equality in the arts for millions throughout the world.
With true appreciation and devotion to our quest of arts for all,
President/Founding Artistic Director