Dance is all about movement, so it's not something expected of people with limited mobility, but so-called physically-integrated dance is being performed across the country. The Asher Dance Eclectic troupe has just introduced it in the Tampa Bay area of Florida. Audiences there used to traditional choreography, are discovering that people with disabilities can do as much as, and sometimes much more than, the rest of us.
The first hint this is no ordinary dance troupe comes as the performance begins. A swirl of taut bodies intermeshes with the glint of steel spokes from wheelchairs. Able-bodied dancers glide across the wooden stage and move as one with their rolling partners. The performance isn't called "Breaking the Mold" for nothing. It presents scenes that challenge the boundaries of traditional dance. And traditional stereotypes, as well.
"Today, we will be observing the interactive and social behaviors of two very distinct and rival groups: the Wheelabouts and the Walkabouts," says an announcer.
So begins "Amazing Discoveries," one of five dance segments in Breaking the Mold. Joy Nabors is one of the "wheelabouts." She wasn't always in a wheelchair, but after she graduated from high school she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. One might think she would be bitter at the world after the disease robbed her of her ability to walk. One would be wrong.
"I didn't think I would be alive, to tell you the truth," she said. "I was very scared, but now that I am a part of it, I'm alive. I'm more alive than I've ever been. "
Ms. Nabors never thought she'd be performing before an audience again. Her sheer joy at being able to express herself through dance shines through.
"I'm just thrilled to be a part of this art, it's amazing to me to be interacting with able-bodied people who see me not just as a woman in a chair, but as Joy, and that's who I am," she said.
In addition to the loss of one's mobility, the dances in Breaking the Mold also deal with topics such as cancer and death. Marlo Katterman's recorded voice opens the segment she choreographed in memory of her mother, who died of breast cancer on Christmas Eve at the age of 48.
"Her name was Evelyn," she told the crowd. "She was a teacher, friend, wife and mother. She was my mother. She was a sparkling inspiration to everyone in life she touched. She was love, patience, understanding and kindness. But above all, she was my mother."
Ms. Katterman is a dance education major at the University of South Florida.
"When I started the piece, it had not been a year since she passed away," she explained. "I started it in November and I thought it would be a good outlet for me to be able to express how I felt about it and to let everyone know how wonderful my mother was. For the first time, I'm getting to express that and everyone is going to know how wonderful my mother was."
Choreographing a dance segment with wheelchairs is difficult, she said. She had to incorporate more arm gestures and upper-body movements.
"It's been incredible," she added. "One of the best things about a wheelchair is that it's a prop. You can climb all over it."
Ms. Katterman's segment is called Il Cancor, Italian for "the cancer." In it, the dancers leap across the stage, propel wheelchairs and swirl their less-mobile partners in intricate patterns.
Another segment, called Rumor, was produced by Merry Lynn Morris, a dance professor at USF. She said that the wheelchairs present a challenge for a choreographer, but also open new vistas for creativity.
"Because they've been so open and flexible and like willing to try things, it really did open up new possibilities that you maybe didn't realize before, like the quality of the wheels and the chairs, to create a whole new sense of motion on the stage," she said. "So you have this new movement dynamic and motion dynamic that you wouldn't have realized, and you don't really have with stand-up dancers."
One of those "stand-up dancers" is Carrie Muroney. She's been dancing for 18 years, but her performance with the Asher Dance Eclectic troupe is the first time she's shared the stage with wheelchairs. She said that it was a steep learning curve, and she has the bruises to prove it.
"Once you get over the idea of, 'My goodness, am I going to hurt them?' I mean, to understand that they're as good of a dancer as you are, then, yeah, it's not any different," she said.
The driving force behind Asher Dance Eclectic is Elizabeth Edelson. The artistic director said that the dancers inspire her.
"I think for the dancers in wheelchairs and the dancers out of wheelchairs, it's like you have this new lease on life," she explained. "Because they teach us that you can persevere and you can do anything. And of course, they learn that in themselves, in their own lives."
Ms. Edelson worked as a dance therapist for people with disabilities, and jumped at the chance to start her own troupe. Asher Dance Eclectic takes the stage regularly at popular Florida attractions like Walt Disney World, as the dancers look for a home stage where they can rehearse and create new works and keep breaking the mold.