By Steve Sucato
Former Dancing Wheels company member Mark Tomasic recalled performing a duet with company President/Founding Artistic Director Mary Verdi-Fletcher at an outdoor venue in Las Vegas. As their piece began, the wrong music played. Says Tomasic, “I remember whispering to Mary. ‘What should we do?’ She whispered back, ‘Just keep going.’” Magically, he says the duet and its alternative score ended simultaneously and audience members, unaware of the mix-up, said they loved it. For Tomasic Verdi-Fletcher’s whispered words to him, “just keep going,” exemplify her as a person, a dance artist and an educator. One who has always pushed forward despite adversity and people’s skepticism and prejudices, she is a pioneer in the field of integrated dance as well as an outspoken advocate for disability rights.
Tomasic, an artistic advisor and a longtime friend of Verdi-Fletcher’s, will present her with Dance/USA’s Trustees Award at the 2018 Dance/USA Annual Conference in Los Angeles (June 6-9). The award is given at the discretion of Dance/USA’s Board to an outstanding professional whose work has special significance to the field.
This is the latest in a string of honors bestowed on Verdi-Fletcher in her career, which has included a Governor’s Award for Arts Education in Ohio, an Ohio Dance Award for major contributions to dance in Ohio, a James Brady Award for Rehabilitation, a Cleveland Arts Prize Lifetime Achievement Award, and an Emmy Award.
Dance: In her Blood
“I don’t ever remember a time when I didn’t love dance,” says Verdi-Fletcher.
Born with spina bifida in 1955 in Cleveland, Ohio, Verdi-Fletcher says that even as a child in leg braces she was compelled to dance. Inspired by her parents who were depression-era Vaudeville performers — her mother Nancy danced as one half of the Baruzzi Twins and her father Sylvio Verdi was a pit orchestra musician — she says dancing was in her blood.
Verdi-Fletcher, with encouragement from her grandmother Marghrita Baruzzi, who told everyone that she was “born with a tear in her eye and a smile on her face,” and from her parents who taught her not to let people put labels on her, persevered in her desire to dance. She says she would respond to those who only saw her disability: “I’m not handicapped, I’m Mary.”
In her pursuit to dance as a child, Verdi-Fletcher says she began breaking her leg braces. Then after getting stronger braces, she broke her legs three times dancing. Her doctors recommended that she use a wheelchair. Undeterred, at age 12, trying to emulate dance moves she had seen on the television program “American Bandstand,” she then broke an axle on her wheelchair. While the equipment Verdi-Fletcher used to get around in proved fragile, her spirit and drive to be a dancer did not.
“What I love most about dance is it feels like flying,” says Verdi-Fletcher.
In 1978 at age 23 Verdi-Fletcher, with her able-bodied dance partner David Brewster, began entering area disco dance contests, including one tied to the popular television show “Dance Fever.” She says their second place finish and the standing ovation they received convinced her that she and her partner could entertain audiences and that they would be accepted just like able-bodied dance partners.
While Verdi-Fletcher was beginning to change perceptions on who could dance, she also began her lifelong mission to change people’s view on how the disabled should be treated in society. She helped create the first independent living center in the State of Ohio and developed statewide training programs and curriculum. As president of the Advocates for Disabled Ohioans, she led an advocacy effort that bussed 100 individuals with disabilities to the state capital to testify on behalf of a piece of legislation that ultimately led to a statewide personal care assistance program. Perhaps her most impactful action for disability rights was a public protest — surrounding and blocking buses along with other advocates to demand accessible public transportation for those with disabilities. That action ultimately led to making every public bus in the nation accessible to everyone.
“I never set out to change the world,” says Verdi-Fletcher. “I just wanted to dance.”
In addition to having to overcome people’s prejudices about who could be a dancer and what dance should look like, Verdi-Fletcher also had to invent a new technique that allowed people in wheelchairs to dance with non-disabled dancers. translate their technique. Part of that approach — translating dance technique the wheelchair — is what she calls “smooth technique,” in which wheeling the chair does not look pedestrian but rather like gliding across the stage.
In 1980, Verdi-Fletcher took her dreams of being a professional dancer a step further by founding Dancing Wheels, the nation’s first physically integrated professional dance company, combining dancers with and without disabilities.
“When I first saw Mary perform, I said that is a dancer,” said Cleveland Ballet artistic director Dennis Nahat in Melinda Ule-Grohol’s 1995 book, Dance Movements in Time. “There was no mistake about it. She had the spark, the spirit that makes a dancer. You can’t take your eyes off her … rarely do you see an artist that can be still and yet hold your attention.”
Impressed with Verdi-Fletcher and Dancing Wheels, Nahat hired them to become a part of Cleveland Ballet’s outreach programs in the early 1990s. That partnership, known as Cleveland Ballet Dancing Wheels, lasted until 2000 when Cleveland Ballet re-located to San Jose, Calif.
Verdi-Fletcher’s simple desire to dance then morphed into wanting her dancing and artistry and that of Dancing Wheels to be considered on the same level as every other dance company says Tomasic. Over the past four decades the company has toured throughout the United States and internationally, performing for more than 5 million people and proving that they indeed are on equal footing with other notable professional dance companies. Verdi-Fletcher has commissioned choreography for the company from noted dance artists including the late Donald McKayle, David Rousseve, Dianne McIntyre, Keith Young and David Dorfman, to name just a few. And she and the company have appeared on CNN, “Good Morning America,” and the TV special “Christopher Reeve: A Celebration of Hope,” as well as with entertainer Ben Vereen. The Broadway and movie star Vereen said of the company: “I see the art form of Dancing Wheels as equal as the other forms to me. The expression from the chair is amazing. The public should support it as they would Joffrey Ballet or Alvin Ailey [American Dance Theater]. There should be throngs coming to their concerts.”
On a company performance in 1992, a review in The Village Voice stated: “The exhilaration that radiates from Verdi-Fletcher’s face makes us suddenly aware that disability is in the eye of the beholder.”
A fellow pioneer in the field of integrated dance, Judith Smith, founder (in 1987) and artistic director emeritus of AXIS Dance Company says of Verdi-Fletcher: “I admire Mary’s strength, because those of us who started dance companies way back when were definitely pioneers. We had to figure out what we were doing, how we were doing it, and how we were going to talk about it. Plus we had to convince the world that what we were doing was dance.”
Smith also gives kudos to Verdi-Fletcher for her leadership skills and Dancing Wheels’ longevity in making an impact on the dance world. Part of that impact was Verdi-Fletcher helping others to follow in her tire tracks.
One of those was Alana Wallace, founder and artistic director of Chicago’s Dance>Detour. Wallace, who has a degree in theater and music, says initially she was of the mindset “that dance could not be something that we as people with disabilities could be taken seriously at.” She adds, “I went to schools for children with disabilities all my life so my exposure to dance was when a dancer who could walk would push us around in our wheelchairs and we would flap our arms a little bit and somebody told us we were dancing with them.”
Seeing Dancing Wheels changed her thinking. “It wowed me. I was amazed at seeing the dancers with disabilities as equal partners to those without them. They performed lifts, turns and glided across the floor. It reminded me of ice dancing.”
Truly Inspired, Wallace attended a summer intensive with Verdi-Fletcher and Dancing Wheels, which set her on her path to starting Chicago’s first integrated dance company. Verdi-Fletcher also inspired her as a business woman. “Mary taught me you don’t cut corners and you don’t ask for any special considerations,” says Wallace. “You want your art to be professional and clean and stand the test of any other professional dance company.”
Education: A School and a Virtual Classroom
In 1990 Verdi-Fletcher founded The School of Dancing Wheels, which through its inclusive classes for students with and without disabilities, summer programs, community outreach and touring school programs, serves more than 6,500 students annually. “I really love teaching,” says Verdi-Fletcher. “I like to see the young students’ minds changed about dance and people with disabilities.”
One who can attest to Verdi-Fletcher’s power as an educator is director of VSA and Accessibility at The Kennedy Center, Betty Siegel. She says: “Mary is an artist who is authentically generous with her time and expertise. She is a natural and intuitive mentor of people …. Mary has taught thousands of young children to be comfortable in their bodies and to use dance as a means of expression and not to let a disability stop them from participating in an artistic endeavor …. If that’s not a huge influence on the field, I don’t know what is.”
Looking to expand her scope and Dancing Wheels’ educational outreach and to foster more inclusion in dance, Verdi-Fletcher with Tomasic created Physically Integrated Dance Training: The Dancing Wheels Comprehensive Guide for Teachers, Choreographers and Students of Mixed Abilities. The nation’s first comprehensive training manual and DVD for wheelchair dancers, their instructors, and rehabilitation hospitals, it uses the translation techniques and methods developed by Verdi-Fletcher and Dancing Wheels. The hope is that through teacher education more doors will open for students with physical disabilities to train at dance studios and in university programs across the planet.
The company has also begun offering a virtual classroom on its website, providing those of all abilities around the world access to learning the dance techniques and methods taught at Dancing Wheels.
No slowing her roll
“Dancing Wheels is proof that the possibilities are endless.” — Christopher Reeve
Now in its 37th season, Dancing Wheels continues to entertain and educate audiences across the country. The company’s programs serve as an ongoing example that all things are possible and spread the message for greater inclusion and accessibility in dance, the arts and society.
Ever pushing forward, Dancing Wheels as an organization recently rebranded itself as the World Center for Integrated Dance and Arts Access and moved into new studio and office spaces. And Verdi-Fletcher, who at 63, and with the full support of her husband Bob, says she has no plans of slowing down. “I want to dance until I can’t dance anymore,” she says. As an advocate, she also wants to continue Dancing Wheels’ mission “to enhance integration and diversity in the arts, provide successful, independent and creative role models for those with disabilities, erase negative stereotypes about people with disabilities in professional careers, primarily in the arts, and instill greater understanding and professionalism in individuals of all ability levels.”
“Mary is tireless, passionate and a steadfast champion for dance,” says Linda Jackson, director of arts in medicine at Cleveland’s MetroHealth System. “Dance made such an impact on her that she has made it her life’s mission to allow dance to impact others no matter what.”
One of those impacted by Dancing Wheels’ message is current company dancer Tanya Ewell. The Detroit-native saw a performance by the company in 2008 while a patient at MetroHealth after an accident left her partially paralyzed and in a wheelchair. It stuck with her and years later she reached out to Verdi-Fletcher who invited her to audition for the company.
“Mary is a role model and mentor to me,” says Ewell. “Working with her and Dancing Wheels has taught me to be humble and has helped me to open up and get over fears that I cannot do things.”
Those who know Verdi-Fletcher describe her as having that certain something that drives her to succeed and draws people to her. Says Dancing Wheels’ rehearsal director Catherine Meredith: “People gravitate toward her no matter what environment we are in because they have a sense that she is somebody. She might be tiny in stature, but her personality and presence fills a room.” A dancer, advocate, pioneer, educator and leader, Verdi-Fletcher is indeed somebody special.
A former dancer turned writer/critic living in Ohio, Steve Sucato studied ballet and modern dance at the Erie Civic Ballet (Erie, Pa.) and at Pennsylvania State University. He has performed numerous contemporary and classical works sharing the stage with noted dancers Robert LaFosse, Antonia Franceschi, Joseph Duell, Sandra Brown, and Mikhail Baryshnikov. His writing credits include articles and reviews on dance and the arts for The Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), The Buffalo News, Erie Times-News (Erie, Pa.), Pittsburgh City Paper as well as magazines Pointe, Dance Studio Life, Dance Magazine, Dance International, Dance Teacher, Stage Directions, Dance Retailer News, Dancer and webzines Balletco, DanceTabs, Ballet-Dance Magazine/Critical Dance, and Exploredance.com, where he is currently associate editor. Steve is a chairman emeritus of the Dance Critics Association, an international association of dance journalists. His wife, Sara Lawrence-Sucato, is a long-time member of Dancing Wheels.
Photo 1: Mary Verdi-Fletcher. Photo by Thomas Ondrey, courtesy of Dancing Wheels.
Photo 2: Mary Verdi-Fletcher (L) and Dancing Wheels in Mark Tomasic's "Going Up...," Baker Theater at Ohio University on October 13, 2015. Photo by Emily Matthews.
Photo 3: Cleveland Ballet Dancing Wheels dancers (from left) Barbara Verlezza, Mark Tomasic, Sabatino Verlezza and Mary Verdi-Fletcher from the late 1990s. Photo by Al Fuchs.
Photo 3: Mary Verdi-Fletcher (L) with unknown student during a school assembly program. Photo courtesy of Dancing Wheels.
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