Hot Wheels

Cleveland pioneers of integrated dance kick off a new national festival this month.

The stage welcomes limber legs and shiny wheels, leaps and rolls, jumps and spins.
“Sit-down” dancers speed across the floor, silver blurs with sculpted biceps. They bob and weave to the beat and latch fingers with the “stand-up” dancers as they all spin around, making their audience forget that the wheelchair wasn’t created just to dance.

The children in the audience gasp at the dramatic parts of the story, clap at the happy ending and leave learning that dancers come in all forms.

Founding artistic director Mary Verdi-Fletcher, who was born with spina bifida, created Dancing Wheels in 1980 because she wanted to be a dancer and didn’t believe she should be limited by her condition. That determination still flashes in Verdi-Fletcher’s eyes as she speaks about her inspiration.

“My mother was a professional dancer and my father was a musician,” she says. “I learned to infuse the dream of dance and music. From the time I was 3 years old, I wanted to be a dancer and follow in my mother’s footsteps.”

But because there weren’t any dance classes for people with disabilities at the time, “I didn’t think I could dance,” she says.

During an experiment with a dancer friend, Verdi-Fletcher discovered her wheelchair was capable of a lot of movement and speed. She realized she could dance, and they decided to enter a competition together.

The duo didn’t mention to anyone that Verdi-Fletcher would be performing in a wheelchair because she says, “it really didn’t occur to me.”

The piece ended with her dance partner “jumping on the armrest of my wheelchair and jumping over my head,” she says. The twosome got a standing ovation.

“The audience was just struck by it because this was 25 years ago and you didn’t see anybody in a wheelchair at a dance competition,” she says.

Dancing Wheels continued performing at exhibitions, schools, nursing homes and hospitals. “It was a means of motivation and inspiration,” she says. “It doesn’t mean you can’t do anything if you have a disability.”

In conjunction with AXIS Dance Company and Full Radius Dance, Dancing Wheels is celebrating 25 years of performances with the inaugural National Integrated Dance Festival Tour. It kicks off May 13 at the Allen Theatre.

“It’s a very unusual opportunity and vision,” Verdi-Fletcher says. “I wanted to bring together the best of integrated companies in the nation.”

The first half of the program will showcase Dancing Wheels’ past performances, including its first dance with the Cleveland San Jose Ballet. The second half will feature performances from the other two companies and will conclude with a world premiere dance created by Pilobolus, a dance company from Connecticut.

The festival will perform in Cleveland, Oakland and Atlanta, homes to the other two companies.
The dancers flutter around the stage, exiting stage left and re-emerging mere seconds later. They take a bow and wave to the crowd of cheering children. With her arms raised, a smile on her face, Verdi-Fletcher knows she has done it. She is dancing.

The National Integrated Dance Festival Tour opens at Allen Theatre May 13 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $25 for general admission, $15 for students and senior citizens. For more information, visit or, or call (216) 241-6000.

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