Mary Verdi-Fletcher, president/founding artistic director of the Dancing Wheels Company & School, now hailed as the World Center for Integrated Dance & Arts Access, has been a pioneering force in the development and success of physically integrated dance worldwide for nearly four 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, David Dorfman, Ben Vereen, Christopher Reeve, and many others. After the inception of The Dancing Wheels Company in 1980, Verdi-Fletcher 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, Verdi-Fletcher has conducted master classes, lectures, and has consulted with notable arts institutions across several continents. Also a tireless arts administrator and advocate, Verdi-Fletcher 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, Verdi-Fletcher helped to create the first Independent Living Center in the State of Ohio. In this role as the first Attendant Care Coordinator, Verdi-Fletcher 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 de-institutionalization and independent lifestyle for thousands of Ohioans with disabilities. Verdi-Fletcher 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, Verdi-Fletcher 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, Verdi-Fletcher 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.
Verdi-Fletcher’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, Verdi-Fletcher 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 the recipient of the Cleveland Arts Prize “Life Time Achievement Award,” The Northeast Ohio Girls Scout 2017 Woman of Distinction Award and one of only six to be selected by OhioDance for their Virtual Dance Collection. In 2018 Verdi-Fletcher was honored as a Woman of Achievement by the YWCA in Cleveland and was a recipient of the Dance/USA Trustee Award.
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