Jul 15, 2017
Ricki Barker, Richmond Register
“If you can’t walk, dance,” is a mantra of Dancing Wheels Company founder Mary Verdi-Fletcher and what initially led her to change the face of dance with the creation of the first physically integrated dance company.
Born with spina bifida, Fletcher never assumed she wouldn’t be able to dance despite being unable to walk without assistance from crutches or braces.
In fact, the young woman was determined to follow in the footsteps of her mother, Nancy Verdi, who was a professional dancer during the days of vaudeville.
For Fletcher, music and dance were a way of life and filled her childhood home. While her mother possessed the swift feet of a dancer, her father, Sylvio Verdi, was a musician who would often play impromptu concerts in their home.
Inspired by the music, Fletcher was determined to move her feet and body to the beat and continued dancing in her braces and crutches despite breaking her leg.
After three such incidents, Fletcher said she decided to stay in a wheelchair but was determined to not let the wheels and seated position confine her.
Fletcher found an opportunity to experiment with dancing with a standing partner as the 1970s ushered in the era of disco. Thanks to the up-beat and groovy music, the spotlight burned bright once again on dance and dancing competitions.
Encouraged by her friends, Fletcher and her partner took their innovative dance moves from the dance floor to competitions.
When the judges saw Fletcher’s performance, seated in her wheelchair but nevertheless stunning, they were enthralled.
It was there Fletcher decided to form an unique dance school where she could teach other dancers — with and without disabilities — how to work together to create jaw-dropping performances.
Now 37 years later, Fletcher’s vision is a reality.
Dancing Wheels Company operates a large dancing school in Cleveland, Ohio, and its dancers tour the world promoting a message of inclusion and spreading awareness about people with disabilities.
Along with touring shows, the company has outreach programs, lecture performances and residencies. The troupe performs about 75 to 80 times a year.
This year will mark the third year the dance company has partnered with the Madison County Public Library to perform for the community.
On July 18, three dancers from Dancing Wheels Company will perform at two elementary schools.
Performances will take place at Shannon Johnson Elementary School at 10:30 a.m. and Kit Carson Elementary School at 2 p.m.
The performances are free and open to the public. Afterwards, the dancers will be available for a question and answer session.
“We are very happy to be returning to Madison County,” said Sara Lawrence-Sucato, a company member and tour manager for Dancing Wheels. “This time there will only be three dancers and it will be a lecture performance. It’s going to be great and there will be an opportunity for audience participation during a routine called ‘Chicken Lips.’”
Sucato, who has been with Dancing Wheels Company for 12 seasons, said she loves her work and the message she gets to spread.
“What is really magical about us is that we show that, regardless of physical ability, you can accomplish anything you set your mind and heart to,” she said. “We show the beauty that can come when people of all abilities cooperate and include each other.”
Sucato said the troupe’s performances often leave audiences in tears or inspire others to attend the school or perform with the company.
The dancer said lecture performances also teach audiences, especially younger ones, about what it is like living with a disability.
“A good majority of our dancers who join us have either heard of us from someone that watched one of our performances or they saw a performance themselves,” Sucato explained. “But regardless of who is seeing us, we try very hard to impart the message that anything is possible. We want people to aspire to whatever their dreams are, just like our founder. She had a dream to dance and now we all go out and show that dreams can come true.”
Reach Ricki Barker at 624-6611; follow her on Twitter @RickiBReports.
View article on the Richmond Review here.