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Three leaders in the field of physically integrated dance consider the future for dancers and choreographers of mixed abilities, including wheelchair users and those using crutches or with developmental or other disabilities. A pioneer in the field, Mary Verdi-Fletcher, a choreographer, Marc Brew, and a social entrepreneur Marisa Hamamoto, share with ICONS their personal paths, choreographic processes, and hopes to broaden opportunities in the art form.
The Pioneer: Mary Verdi-Fletcher
Dance ICONS: How do we call companies with dancers using wheelchairs or dancers with different abilities - could you please educate us about terminology?
Mary Verdi-Fletcher: The most commonly used term is physically integrated dance. That said, there is a schism in the disabled community about terminology. One camp wants people-first language and another camp likes to put the disability first. Often younger people want to express their pride in their disability, so they put their disability first. I am first a person, second, a woman, and, third, a dancer who happens to have a disability. I prefer the people-first language. I work hard every day building the company. I’ve been an advocate for years and the language we use is a part of that advocacy. That said, [people] have a right to their opinions and their language choices. Dancing Wheels is the first physically integrated dance company in America. Though we haven’t tracked it closely, we’re one of the first in the world.
ICONS: Is there a difference in the choreographic process when you work with dancers of mixed abilities?
M.V.F.: The choreographic process can be many things. After more than 40 years of developing and commissioning works, I think the way in which I commission choreography is unique to each dance and to each choreographer. I’m still dancing myself and when I see a choreographer working with a “stand-up” versus a “sit-down” dancer, I find myself often serving as a translator, usually from stand-up to sit-down. I take a stand-up movement or phrase and translate it for the wheelchair.
And, of course, it depends on the choreographer whether a translation is necessary based on whether it’s movement-based or a personal choice. Many of our dancers are proficient in the act of translating. When we work with choreographers who don’t have prior experiences with integrated dance, some choreographers try to work out aspects of translation by working in a wheelchair on their own. They experiment with taking their vocabulary and incorporating it into the movement from the chair.
David Rousseve did that prior to working with us and found himself quite surprised at how much more our wheelchair dancers could do. You can’t assume the technical aspect of every wheelchair dancer, like the technical abilities of every dancer, are the same. Some dancers can do triple pirouettes, others can’t; some dancers in wheelchairs can do things that others can’t. But dancers in wheelchairs can do things that stand-up dancers can’t. Look at how quickly and smoothly we can move across the floor in a single push, for example.
ICONS: What should choreographers know when working with this population of dancers?
M.V.F.: A prerequisite for a choreographer [working with this population] is to be more in tune with the body rather than the aesthetics of the movement. When I trained in ballet, for example, I would be asked why I would study ballet, but learning the epaulement and the body language of the ballet was important for me to learn as a dancer, a choreographer, and a teacher. A wheelchair dancer can teach all non-disabled dancers ballet because they are knowledgeable about the technique, know the vocabulary and can articulate what the movement combination should be.
ICONS: Where do you see the future of integrated dance?
M.V.F.: I’m seeing some growth both in the number of companies and in interest from the disabled community to be a part of the dance community. I’m also seeing a greater number of younger people with disabilities who are interested in becoming choreographers. Only a couple of years ago, it was really just Marc [Brew of AXIS Dance] rising as a disabled choreographer for the most part. In the public, I would say there is a growing understanding of physically integrated dance, both here in the U.S. and internationally. It’s being recognized in the disability community and beyond. It is also being recognized in the dance community, and supported by organizations such as Dance/USA, among others.
I believe the future of integrated dance should be widespread and that the world will see it for its important contribution to the dance field. I hope that people will see the differences among companies and understand how each physically integrated company is unique, rather than think that if they see one physically integrated company, they have seen them all. This has been an issue with both presenters and audience members. A presenter might bring in one company and say well they’ve done their duty, not understanding the distinction of bringing in another company and opening their audiences’ eyes to the plethora of diverse dance that the field of physically integrated dance has to offer.
Meanwhile, our upcoming concert Reverse *Reboot* Reveal features the work of disabled choreographers and it will take place on June 14th at the Allen Theatre at Playhouse Square. More information is available at playhousesquare.org
Dancing Wheels Company is presented by KMP Artists.
The Choreographer: Marc Brew
Dance ICONS: How did you find your way to dance and choreography?
Marc Brew: We lived in a small country town, Jerilderie, in Australia. When I was younger, I had lots of energy -- I did lots of backflips and somersaults, rolling around the yard -- so my mother decided to put me in dance class. I was about seven and the dance teacher came to our town on Fridays. At 11, I started classical ballet and I really enjoyed the challenge. I graduated from the Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School, a [public] arts academy in Melbourne and went to the Australian Ballet School. From there I was offered a job in South Africa with PACT Ballet. I moved to Pretoria when I was 19.
I always choreographed. As a kid, I was always experimenting in my front yard. We lived in a flat on the ground floor and I used to go out to the front yard on the grass. The bedroom window became my mirror. I would just makeup dances and teach my friends. I was a creative child.
ICONS: Did you study choreography or composition formally?
M.B.: In high school, we did compositional studies and there was a class in choreography. I was given a lot of opportunities to choreograph on the dance students and the younger students for our school productions. Later at PACT Ballet [in South Africa], I was asked to choreograph a piece for the company dancers. My creative outlet was very much choreography. I generally started my choreography in a very standard way. I would makeup movement on my own body and then teach it to other people, look at different compositional structures in putting it together: ABA, ABC, like that. I worked with the bodies.
ICONS: What happened next?
M.B.: After acquiring my disability from a car accident in 1997 in South Africa, I was paralyzed from the neck down; I knew I wanted to keep dancing. The problem was I had to make up my own dances if I wanted to keep dancing. No one knew how to work with me. I didn’t fit into the ballet world anymore … and back then there was no such thing as an integrated company in Australia, where I returned to do my rehabilitation.
To keep dancing I said to my friends who were dancers, well let’s just get in the studio and see what we can do together. I thought it would be really easy. Actually, it wasn’t and it took time to get to know my own body. It was very different. The whole idea with dance is that it has the tradition of using the legs and high extensions of the legs, which were now gone [for me]. I wondered: Could I still even call myself a dancer? I didn’t look like a dancer now that I used a wheelchair, but I still felt like a dancer.
I loved to dance because I could express movement and emotion through my body. And I can still do that in a wheelchair. It’s just going to be different. I can still move, I can still express, through my body and also through my chair, and also in floor work and partnering. I started exploring with my fellow dancers to discover how we could work together.
ICONS: After training and working with other companies around the world, both traditional and integrated, as well as your own Marc Brew Dance Company, you joined AXIS Dance Company in 2017. Tell us about your work there.
M.B.: We’re an integrated company of dancers with and without physical disabilities. When I talk about dancers, I don’t differentiate when talking about who is in a wheelchair or who has a disability or not. If the dancer is using a wheelchair, I think about [him or her] as a person and about how they are using the chair. We use the terms “disabled” and “nondisabled” dancers based on the social model of disability or people-first language. But if you think about it, what is disabling for us is the environment that we built and the implication of that. If an environment was accessible to everybody, then I wouldn’t be disabled because I would be able to have [equal] access to everything that everyone else has access to. I encourage the use of the word “disabled” so it doesn’t have a negative connotation. I have a disability and I’m a choreographer and a dancer.
Awareness is definitely growing about the disability community and we’re seeing developments in disability [-friendly] architecture and other opportunities are growing, but more needs to be done. It’s about asking the right questions about what language to use when you talk about disability, which is important because people identify in different ways.
ICONS: You have choreographed both as a disabled and non-disabled choreographer. What, if anything, changed for you in learning how to choreograph with a different body?
M.B.: I choreographed off of my own body when I started making dances, setting the steps on myself and then teaching others. When I became disabled, I wasn’t able to do that, so I had to really work hard on how I communicate. I worked on developing my descriptive tools, how I describe movement and how I use imagery really helped me discover the quality of movement. I do actually demonstrate, but using my arms.
I’m very fortunate that I had formal training in classical ballet and in contemporary dance -- Graham, Cunningham and the like. I know the dance terminology so I can access that in regards to ballet steps. When I started making work after I acquired my disability, I didn’t actually demonstrate a lot ... I just gave tasks because I thought I didn’t have the skill set to be explicit about what I wanted [my work] to look like. I would just give a task or an exercise and the dancers would do it, then I would manipulate and sculpt it to what I wanted.
Now, I’m actually going back to demonstrate. I’ve gone on the floor to make a floor phrase when I want the dancers to learn from my body and then embody it in their bodies. And whether they’re disabled or not, they can pick up on my movement quality as I’m doing it. I was doing that because I thought it was interesting. As a choreographer, I realized, “Wow, not many people move like me now.” I was always trying to be like upright dancers until I realized that not many people can move like me, and that could be really interesting material, which led me to explore how I could use my own physicality, my own movement research, to discover new possibilities. I came to see restriction as a way to give me new possibilities.
ICONS: How so?
M.B.: My disability has definitely taught me that because I had to solve problems, I had to find other ways of doing things, other ways of moving. I’d find myself stuck on my left side and that made me find out how to get back on my right. It also made me give restrictions to dancers. I may teach them an arm phrase and ask them to do that arm phrase as a leg phrase, and then use the arm phrase in the rest of the body to find out what happens to your body. Then I may have the dancers use it in a duet and then find solutions with their own bodies.
People often ask me when I work with a ballet company or a nonintegrated dance company if I work differently. No, the process is exactly the same. I may get different material and I may come in with different concepts and themes that I’m exploring in movement, but I treat all the dancers the same. I push them all to the same place as they go and explore the concepts.
ICONS: What do you see in the future for physically integrated dance?
M.B.: I see physically integrated dance as falling under the same umbrella of dance, just as there are different styles of dance, different techniques of dance, different formations of dance. You can have somebody dancing on their legs and somebody else who is gliding in a wheelchair. I may not be able to do some things, but I can do other things. That’s really exciting and fun. I love what that difference can bring to the dance floor.
As for the future, AXIS has a new program, the Chore Lab, to help support and grow disabled artists, whether it’s as a disabled choreographer or as disabled dancer. We’re seeing a real richness and new perspectives for the dance world from these disabled choreographers, which enriches the field of dance as a whole. When you work in integrated dance settings, there’s something wonderful about the possibilities of different physicalities and what they can do together. It adds so much to the mix and to the accessibility. I’d love to see more companies doing more integrated work and see that integrated dance becomes a part of their practice through more exchange, whether in modern or traditional ballet companies. Integrated dance shouldn’t be seen as a separate but as part of the dance world as a whole.
The Social Entrepreneur: Marisa Hamamoto
ICONS: You grew up with the hope to dance with a ballet company, but ended up in college in Japan. What happened?
Marisa Hamamoto: I studied intensively at the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, D.C. and danced briefly with a start-up company in North Dakota, but I wasn’t hired and ended up at Keio University in Japan. I did book my first professional engagement as a dancer in my sophomore year there. I was dancing, doing academic work, working part-time, but I really made it a goal to graduate with high marks and get a scholarship to grad school as a backup plan, but still audition for dance companies in Europe.
During my senior year in 2006, I was in the middle of a contemporary dance class outside of the university. I felt one of my elbows tingle. Moments later I collapsed onto the ground. I couldn’t move my arms or my legs. I found myself paralyzed from the neck down. I was diagnosed with spinal cord infarction, which is also known as a spinal stroke. The doctor told me that I might not walk or dance again.
Miraculously, I did walk out of the hospital at the two-month mark. I was affected at the C6, C7 point [on the spine], kind of at the nape of the neck area on my spinal cord, which affects my upper extremities greatly. I was able to walk but my arms and hands weren’t fully functioning when I got out.
ICONS: But you weren’t better, right?
M.H.: I had regained much of my mobility, but I was still paralyzed on the inside. All I could think of was a ballet coach who had sexually assaulted me when I was a teen, yelling at me, “I told you that you were not meant to be a dancer. I cursed you with a stroke hoping that you would quit, but you didn’t.” So I understand PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Trauma does exist and the trauma from my past and from the actual paralysis stayed with me. It took three or four years to feel okay.
ICONS: How did dance help?
M.H.: I discovered salsa dancing at a New Year’s Eve party in Tokyo. All these people weren’t trained dancers and they were having fun. I took my first salsa class a few days later, and it was rediscovering dance all over again. You are in contact, holding hands, and something about that made me think, “This is good rehab.” I found a ballroom dance studio that would take me on as a trainee so I could learn to teach. I moved back to Southern California and discovered wheelchair dancing in 2014. I was blown away that people were able to dance without the use of their legs. I did more research and learned how underdeveloped the field of dance and disability is. One in five people has a disability.
ICONS: How did you get started as an inclusive dance company?
M.H.: Being a ballroom dancer, I decided to look for a wheelchair dance partner, but I couldn’t find one. I looked at the athletic community and found a wheelchair bodybuilder, Adelfo Cerame Jr. Two days later we got into a studio. Honestly, I was terrified to dance with him at first and he was completely new to dancing. Then a magical moment happened: After dancing with him for a couple of hours, his wheelchair just disappeared and it was no longer Adelfo-the-wheelchair-user. It was just Adelfo. I realized at that moment that when you’re dancing with someone, you see beyond race, color, size, age, gender, ability or disability. I thought, “If the world danced, people would be able to accept human beings as they are.” As the Asian kid who had always felt left out, as the Japanese girl who was always different in Japan, and knowing what it feels to be rejected and excluded from my own personal dance struggles, I felt I had to figure out a way to share this moment. A few months later I built Infinite Flow.
We started off super niche focussing on wheelchair ballroom dancing where a manual wheelchair dancer dances with a standing dancer, but we've evolved into a dance company which includes dancers not only with physical disabilities, but also auditory, visual, intellectual, etc, and a few without. The commonality between all dancer whether they have a disability or not is that they are breaking a stereotype in their own way.
ICONS: Describe how you choreograph.
M.H.: I consider myself an artistic director and producer. I choose choreographers per goal, and if I’m the right one, I’ll choreograph it, but if the job is better accomplished by another artist, I try to make that happen. Initially, our medium was ballroom dancing. And ballroom, like ballet, has a formula -- patterns that are commonly used. I just needed to translate that into wheelchair-standing partner dancing language, so I was often the choreographer for this work. But once we started to expand out of ballroom dancing, I quickly realized that I wanted to bring other creators into the picture. Some of my company dancers have stepped up to choreograph as well, and it’s been rewarding to witness the creativity that has come out of this.
My concept is that we each have a unique body and -- whether a dancer uses a wheelchair, stands on two feet or one foot -- each has a different body, and each has to translate movement to their own unique body.
ICONS: When you commission choreography what happens?
M.H.: I have ground rules for creative collaborators that I pass on to choreographers, photographers, and videographers. To this day, whether it’s ballroom, hip-hop, contemporary, whatever the genre, I make it a point that there are always at least two people dancing together. At some point in each piece, I want to see partner work or connection between the dancers. And, when two different people are dancing, whatever the “body,” they are dancing as equals. My goal is to make equality and quality so prominent that viewers can’t call it a wheelchair dance or inclusive dance anymore. It’s just dance.
ICONS: What’s next?
M.H.: We are an organization that puts our mission to make dance accessible to all and use dance as a vehicle to inspire inclusivity first. I am as much a social innovator as I am an artist. We focus on the inclusion of people with disabilities, but the movement we lead is much broader. Inclusion is not about checking a box; it’s a mindset where each person is valued and heard. Through dance and collaboration, we look forward to continuing creating innovative experiences for broad audiences that align with our mission.
Dancing Wheels Dance Company and School
AXIS Dance Company:
Infinite Flow - An Inclusive Dance Company in Philip Chbeeb’s choreography:
MORE ABOUT THE ARTISTS:
Mary Verdi-Fletcher has been a pioneering force in the development of physically integrated dance worldwide for nearly four decades. One of the first and foremost professional wheelchair dancers, she worked and studied with such artists as Donald McKayle, David Rousseve, Dianne McIntyre, Dennis Nahat, Keith Young, Ben Vereen, and Christopher Reeve. After founding Dancing Wheels Company in 1980, Mary recognized the dire need for training and career advancement for dancers of all ability levels, which led to the creation of the multi-arts Cleveland-based Dancing Wheels School in 1990. As an arts administrator and advocate, Mary has contributed to the development of state and national programs for arts and disability service organizations. She worked to help pass significant legislation, including the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which paved the way to full and equal access for all.
As president and founding artistic director of The Dancing Wheels Company and School, Mary strives to impact the lives of thousands of children and adults. The full-time company of 12 stand-up and sit-down dancers travels the globe, performing for and educating individuals with and without disabilities. The Dancing Wheels Company and School have made an indelible mark on the way society views the artistry and ability of people who live with a disability. In 2015, Verdi-Fletcher unveiled a new branding campaign for the company: The World Center for Integrated Dance & Arts Access. In 2016 Dancing Wheels-specific training opened through virtual classes.
Through service on multiple organizational boards and activist groups, Mary continues to advocate for equal access in performance and training on site and digitally.
Marc Brew, acclaimed international choreographer and AXIS Dance Company Artistic Director, trained as a professional dancer at the Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School and The Australian Ballet School. He has been working in the UK and internationally for more than 20 years as a director, choreographer, dancer, teacher and speaker with the Australian Ballet Company, State Theatre Ballet Company of South Africa, Infinity Dance Theatre, Candoco Dance Company, and AXIS Dance Company. Brew was an associate director with Scottish Dance Theatre, associate artistic director with Ballet Cymru in Wales and associate artist in 2015 at Tramway Theatre in Glasgow. In 2015, his piece “Strata,” a collaboration between Scottish Ballet and Indepen-dance, was the first integrated work made for a national ballet company.
Since 2008 he has dedicated time to his own choreography with Marc Brew Company and recent choreographic commissions including San Francisco Ballet School, Dancing Wheels, Scottish Ballet, Ballet Cymru (Wales), YDance (Scotland), AXIS Dance Company (USA), Candoco Dance Company (UK), Touch Compass (NZ), Amy Seiwert’s Imagery (USA) and Scottish Dance Theatre (Scotland). Brew has received the Centenary Medal for Outstanding Contribution as a dancer and choreographer. His work Remember When was nominated for an Isadora Duncan Dance Award for Best Individual Performance in San Francisco and his recent solo, For Now, I am… was listed in the Guardian’s Top 10 Dance Shows in London for 2016.
Marisa Hamamoto is a dance artist, a stroke survivor, inclusion keynote speaker, and Founder of Infinite Flow - An Inclusive Dance Company. Marisa Hamamoto leads a global movement for #InfiniteInclusion. After 20 years of dancing ballet and contemporary dance in both the US and Japan, Marisa discovered and fell in love with ballroom dancing while recovering from spinal cord infarction, a rare stroke which caused her to be temporarily paralyzed from the neck down while in college. In 2015, Marisa founded Infinite Flow, a professional inclusive dance company and nonprofit with a mission to make dance accessible to all and use dance to inspire inclusivity.
Marisa has organized 200+ inclusive dance classes and has brought Infinite Flow’s professional dancers with and without disabilities to perform at over 100 events, from school assemblies to corporate events with Apple, Red Bull, Porsche, Kaiser Permanente, and others. Infinite Flow’s videos have been viewed by over 50 Million people and she has been featured in over 100 media outlets including NBC Today, Good Morning America, Refinery 29, and others. Marisa and wheelchair ballroom world champion Piotr Iwanicki made history by being the first dancers to perform at Apple’s Steve Jobs Theater with CEO Tim Cook in the audience, and Sheryl Sandberg, George Takei, and other influencers have endorsed her work as well.
As a social entrepreneur and thought leader, she is a Fellow with Red Bull Amaphiko, Facebook Community Leadership Program, and Social Venture Partners Los Angeles. Marisa is a leader, artist, and speaker on the rise looking to empower people through dance and storytelling to disable bias, encourage others to get out of their comfort zone, build new connections, and create breakthrough innovations.
Video banner pictured Invite Flow Dance Company, photography by Roxanne Turpen
Article photography from top to bottom:
- Headshot of Mary Verdi-Fletcher, courtesy of The Dancing Wheels Company
- Headshot of Marc Brew, photography by Andy Ross
- Headshot of Marisa Hamamoto, courtesy of Infinite Flow Dance Company
- The Dancing Wheels Company, photography by Dale Dong
- The Dancing Wheels Company, courtesy of the company
- AXIS Dance Company, photography by David DeSilva
- AXIS Dance Company mural, courtesy of the company
- Infinite Flow Dance Company, photography by Roxanne Turpen
Interviewer: Lisa Traiger
Content Editor-in-Chief: Camilla Acquista
Dance ICONS, Inc., April 2019 © All rights reserved.