Mary Verdi-Fletcher was all of 3 when she decided she might want to spend her life as a dancer. Only one thing loomed as a potential obstacle: spina bifida, the birth defect with which she was born.
But Verdi-Fletcher was so strong-minded and so inspired by her mother, a dancer, and father, a musician, that she never let formidable challenges alter her course.
"I would dream of how I would dance if I wasn't disabled," she said recently. "Gradually, I realized how I could."
Verdi-Fletcher realized a lot more in the decades that followed. Along with the capacity to move with artistic grace and imagination in a wheelchair, she learned how to nurture a dance company and school for people with and without disabilities.
This week, her Cleveland-based creation, Dancing Wheels, celebrates its 30th anniversary. At a bash Saturday at the Cleveland Agora, Verdi-Fletcher will join supporters for an extended party and performance that includes an appearance by singer Gloria Gaynor, who'll take the stage during the company's world premiere of "Dancing on a Dream" by Cleveland choreographer Dianne McIntyre.
The biographical piece salutes Verdi-Fletcher for her remarkable achievements as dancer, educator, artistic director and advocate for the disabled. To devise the work, McIntyre employed the process she always uses before making a move: she interviewed Verdi-Fletcher and members of Dancing Wheels about their lives and experiences.
"Dancing on a Dream" is set to popular music of the 1980s -- the music Verdi-Fletcher was dancing to in clubs with a partner during this period, when she also established Dancing Wheels as the first physically integrated dance company in the country. It began to garner recognition nationally in 1990, when it became affiliated with Cleveland Ballet and Verdi-Fletcher opened Dancing Wheels School.
In chatting with the company's young performers before developing "Dancing on a Dream," McIntyre was delighted to discover how many tunes from the 1980s they knew.
"That just floored me," said McIntyre. "We tried to find things that had that moving-forward and not-holding-you-back."
A reflection, in other words, of Verdi-Fletcher.
"People only know me as a dancer or as director of this company," she said. "They don't know that the determination I had stemmed from what I didn't have as a child."
Such as a normal life. The young Mary Verdi was often sick and hospitalized. She underwent more than a dozen surgeries. She recalls thinking at 7 that "if I got better than I was, I wouldn't waste a moment of my life."
As she followed her muse, Verdi-Fletcher explored every dance option she could contemplate. She broke many wheels on her wheelchairs in the early years of experimentation. But she also shaped a new movement language influenced by dance she loved in movie musicals and television shows.
In 1980, Verdi-Fletcher and her dance partner, David Brewster, entered the "Dance Fever" competition in Willoughby. The capacity audience went silent when the wheelchair dancer and able-bodied dancer appeared onstage.
"They could not imagine what someone in a wheelchair would do in a dance competition," said Verdi-Fletcher. "The wheelchair weighed 55 pounds. I weighed 68 pounds." (As she does today.) "The crowd went wild."
So did the media, which spread the story of Verdi-Fletcher and Brewster, who were named alternates to perform on the weekly TV variety series in California.
It was on the night of the Willoughby competition that Verdi-Fletcher named her company Dancing Wheels, "because my wheels were dancing."
McIntyre -- who created another work, "Sweet Radio Radicals," for Dancing Wheels in 2008 -- said of Verdi-Fletcher that she admires "the conviction and fortitude and vision she had inside of her.
"She was born with the attitude, 'I'm not going to let anything stop me.' That's what Mary's about -- and why this company has thrived to today."
The company's dancers are among Verdi-Fletcher's most ardent champions. Samantha Fox, a stand-up member in her first season, said absorbing wheelchair techniques has benefited her artistry greatly.
"It changes your perception of why you move the way you do -- the momentum, turning, flow of energy in the shoulder," Fox said.
Another stand-up dancer, Franklin Polk, was teaching a martial arts class for Dancing Wheels when Verdi-Fletcher asked him to join the company. A former dancer with SAFMOD, the multimedia performance ensemble, Polk had a close friend in a wheelchair who died in 2007.
"So my heart was already here," he said.
Mark Daurelio, who's been working on and off with Dancing Wheels for five years, became a paraplegic after an accident on a dirt bike a decade ago. He expressed reluctance when he met Verdi-Fletcher at the Gravity Games and she asked him to join the company.
A former member of the Cleveland Wheelchair Cavaliers, Daurelio finally decided to let Verdi-Fletcher teach him how to dance, which was challenging at first.
"Sometimes you turn without using your hands, and you twist your body and learn trunk control," said Daurelio, 40.
He calls Verdi-Fletcher "a great role model."
"Just the passion she has for dance is incredible," Daurelio said. "She's always busy with the company, even on her day off."
Verdi-Fletcher's dedication is partly an extension of her role as advocate for disability rights. She began her company first to do educational outreach and second to present concerts.
And she has inspired many others by example. Dancing Wheels is one of 50 physically integrated dance companies in the United States. With her organization's annual budget of nearly $500,000, Verdi-Fletcher is able to offer dancers 52-week contracts -- the only company of its kind in the country that does so.
It's no surprise, then, that no one will be celebrating more at Saturday's anniversary bash than Verdi-Fletcher, who'll collaborate with her colleagues in McIntyre's "Dancing on a Dream."
"The greatest joy is when I'm dancing," said Verdi-Fletcher. "So Dianne has given me a real gift."
Monday, May 30, 2011
The Plain Dealer. In the picture, choreographer Dianne McIntyre, right, rehearses members of Dancing Wheels in her new work, "Dancing on a Dream," which salutes the company's founder and artistic director, Mary Verdi-Fletcher, front.
Posted by BA Haller at 10:42 PM