Dancing to inspire

Published 9:34 am Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Dancing Wheels, a group featuring dancers with and without disabilities, performs a set from a 2009 show, “Walls of Glass.” (Submitted photo)

Dancing Wheels, a group featuring dancers with and without disabilities, performs a set from a 2009 show, “Walls of Glass.” (Submitted photo)

Integrated dance group to host performance, class during Dogwood Festival

From an early age, Mary Verdi-Fletcher knew that the thing she wanted most in life was to become a dancer.

The daughter of a professional dancer and a musician, she was immersed in the culture and spectacle of the fine arts right from birth.

“I dreamed of following in my parents’ footsteps,” Verdi-Fletcher said. “I wanted to become a dancer so bad, and my mother helped foster that idea in my head as a kid, telling me how she and my father met while they were touring across the country. It was a love story that made me want to pursue it even more.”

Verdi-Fletcher eventually accomplished her goal, never letting the fact that she has spent her life in a wheelchair get in her way.

Next month, her professional dance group, Dancing Wheels, will visit this year’s Dogwood Fine Arts Festival. The group, a team of talented individuals with and without so-called disabilities, will host a free workshop at 10 a.m. on Saturday, May 10, at Southwestern Michigan College, followed by a live stage performance at 7:30 p.m.

The Cleveland-based performing group was founded in 1980 by Verdi-Fletcher, based around the integrated dance style that she had created. Although she was born with spina bifida, she was determined to pursue her dream of dancing on stage.

“I started to experiment in dancing with a non-disabled partner, and as we were doing so, audiences began to love what they saw,” Verdi-Fletcher said.

She and her partner, David Brewster, were later featured on an episode of Dance Fever, a nationally syndicated TV dancing competition, which drew a great amount of media attention to her innovative, wheelchair-based performances.

“At the time I was doing it, I didn’t realize I was doing anything revolutionary,” Verdi-Fletcher said. “I really wanted to dance, and it was just an unique

experience for me to do what I wanted to do.”

In 1990, the professional dancer formed the multi-arts Dancing Wheels School. In the years that followed, the school has grown to become the premier school for physically integrated dance, attracting students from around the globe.

“It’s very gratifying to see young people with disabilities train and perform,” Verdi-Fletcher said.

Today, the dance group is comprised of 15 dancers, along with directors and other off-stage assistants. The performers, including Verdi-Fletcher, make 70 to 100 appearances a year across the world, traveling to locations that range from Russia to Guatemala.

“It’s almost like missionary work,” Verdi-Fletcher said. “We often travel to countries that aren’t in the most glamorous conditions.”

The dancer recalled one trip to Poland, where she and her group gave dancing lessons to children in a gymnasium with a dirt floor. She has also taught students who used wheelchairs that were beginning to fall apart, she said.

For Verdi-Fletcher, though, providing a little bit of life and joy to the less fortunate is something she is always happy to do, she said.

“I think that all of us should use our skills and talents to benefit other people,” Verdi-Fletcher said.

As for audiences here in Dowagiac, Verdi-Fletcher said that they’d be in for a pleasant surprise on Saturday evening when they get a first-hand glimpse of the group’s performance.

“Usually, the first word out of people’s mouths is ‘wow’ when they see us,” Verdi-Fletcher said. “It blows them away.”

The performance and class will take place at the Dale A. Lyons Building. Tickets cost $20 for adults and $15 for students.

The workshop will be provided free of charge, with each student receiving a free ticket to the evening show. To register, call (269) 782-1115.