Editor’s Note: Mary Verdi-Fletcher of Cleveland, Ohio, is the president/founding artistic director of Dancing Wheels Company & School and oversees the operation of the organization. Wheel:Life sat down with Mary to talk about the adaptive dance program she created and the vast number of people’s lives worldwide that are better for being part of it.
“Being part of the Dancing Wheels Company really has changed my life,” Tanya Ewell of Cleveland, Ohio, says. After Tanya’s injury, she stayed home for a couple of years. She felt there wasn’t much she could do with her life because she was in a wheelchair.
Prior to her injury, Tanya loved to dance. When Tanya learned about Dancing Wheels, something inside her awoke to the possibility of being able to dance again. “When Tanya came in to audition, we found her to have beautiful movements,” Verdi-Fletcher explains. “We’ve been training her to dance for the last couple of years. Today, she does a beautiful job as a performer.”
Dance and Music Were a Part of Verdi-Fletcher’s DNA
Mary Verdi-Fletcher never assumed she couldn’t dance, although she was born with spina bifida. “My mother, Nancy Verdi, was a professional dancer during the days of vaudeville, and my father, Sylvio Verdi, was a musician,” Verdi-Fletcher mentions. “I always loved listening to my parents as they talked about how they had performed, what places they had visited, and what people they had met all across America.”
“I always dreamed of following in my mother’s footsteps. My mother and her sister performed together on the vaudeville circuit, doing ballet, soft shoe, tap and acrobatic dances. My dad played saxophone and clarinet in a number of big orchestras, including Bob Hope’s orchestra when he performed for the U.S. Armed Forces. I was born into a very rich dance and musical background and had big dreams as a child of following in my mother’s and dad’s footsteps. I never thought I couldn’t be a dancer.”
“At that time, society said people in wheelchairs couldn’t dance, but I never bought into that idea.” ~ Mary Verdi-Fletcher
When Verdi-Fletcher was a small child, her mother choreographed dances for her and her brother that they performed for the family. Verdi-Fletcher watched television to see people dancing and old movies of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire – two of the most famous dancers in Hollywood and movies at that time. She also watched “American Bandstand” that featured teenagers showing off the latest dance moves.
“As I watched the dancers on TV, I started moving my wheelchair to the rhythm of the music, until I finally broke one of the wheels off my wheelchair,” Verdi-Fletcher recalls. “When I was really young, I often used braces and crutches. However, I broke my leg three different times dancing with my braces and crutches. After I broke my leg the third time, I opted to stay in the wheelchair.”
For years, all Verdi-Fletcher could do was dream about dancing in spite of being grounded by her wheelchair. Then in the 1980s, disco sparked a fire that fueled the nation to dance. According to Verdi-Fletcher, “Some friends invited me to dance with them. We experimented with partnering and dancing. We found there was a very unique relationship between what we now call a stand-up dancer and a sit-down dancer.”
“For years, I danced and experimented with partners who weren’t disabled. We’d go to dance clubs and dance socially. Next came a TV show called ‘Dance Fever’ that had competitions all across the country where young people competed to be on the television show. Our friends would ask me, ‘Are you and your partner practicing to perform for the ‘Dance Fever’ tryouts?’ We’d always answer back, ‘No, we’re just having fun and going dancing because we like to dance.’”
But finally Verdi-Fletcher signed her and her dance partner up for the competition. She didn’t tell anyone she was in a wheelchair. As she explains, “When I was filling out the application to compete, it never occurred to me to put on the dance form that I was in a wheelchair. I was just entering the ‘Dance Fever’ competition.”
Dance Fever was an American musical variety series that aired weekly in syndication from January 1979 to September 1987. The series was created and produced by Merv Griffin and written by Tony Garofalo.
Each week on the show, four dancing couples competed for a weekly cash prize of $1,000; Each couple performed their dance routine for a total of two minutes and the celebrity judges scored them anywhere between 70 and 100 points. The couple with the highest total score were the winners and advanced into the next round of competition. In the event of a tie, one set of celebrity scores was dropped in an effort to decide a winner; every fifth week was a semi-final show where those winning couples from the last four weeks competed for $5,000.
At the end of a 25-week competition, the five semi-final winners all came back to face off in the show’s annual Grand Prix Finals for cash and prizes worth over $25,000 which included two brand new cars (one for each member of the winning dance team).
In 1980, a competition was held in Cleveland, Ohio, for the Dance Fever producers to look for new dancers for the TV show. On the day of the competition, about 2,000 people were in the audience.
When Verdi-Fletcher rolled out on the stage with her partner, a hush fell over the audience. No one ever had seen, heard of or thought about a person in a wheelchair competing in a dance competition. The producer of Dance Fever leaned forward in his chair, amazed that a person in a wheelchair and a standup-dancer even would think about dancing in a competition with other dancers for a spot on a TV show.
But Verdi-Fletcher wasn’t phased, as she always had drawn strength from a saying her mother taught her when she was young. “Mary, when people come up to you and ask ‘What’s your handicap?’ just say, ‘I’m not handicapped. I’m Mary.’” Rather than being defined by her medical problem, Verdi-Fletcher defined herself as Mary. “I wanted people to see me as me and not see me as my disability,” Verdi-Fletcher says today.
“When the music was cued up, David Brewster and I started dancing to ‘It’s Raining Men’ by the Weather Girls (a very popular song and group at the time),” Verdi-Fletcher remembers. “We had pop-open umbrellas and bits of mylar falling from above to simulate rain.”
To have a flashy finale at the end of the dance, Brewster, a gymnast, jumped up on the armrest of Verdi-Fletcher’s chair and then jumped over her head. The crowd went wild. The first-ever wheelchair dancer for “Dance Fever” and her partner got a standing ovation. The producer of the show told Verdi-Fletcher and Brewster, “I’ve never seen anything like you two before.” They were chosen as alternates to go to California and possibly be on the “Dance Fever” TV show.
The following year, Brewster and Verdi-Fletcher were on the Walt Disney show, “Coming Up,” on national television. In a short time, the public had seen articles in magazines and newspapers and TV shows of Brewster and Verdi-Fletcher. More opportunities to perform came their way. In their first year, Brewster and Verdi-Fletcher performed 70 times and made $15,000 to $20,000 in appearance fees – which was really good money at that time.
They didn’t realize it then, but they had become the first professional wheelchair dancers.
“My parents thought my performing as a dancer was really great, and they were proud of me, but still my wheelchair dancing didn’t really seem to be a big deal to them,” Verdi-Fletcher says. “I guess they never thought I wouldn’t dance and perform. At that time, I didn’t know where my professional dancing career was headed. I just knew I liked to dance and I liked to perform.”
A Tremendous Leap of Faith Creates Dancing Wheels
Verdi-Fletcher never considered the possibility of making her love of dance a career or being able to support herself from her dancing and performing. She had a fulltime job as a development director for an independent living center. She was also the program director there and the attendant care program for personal care assistance.
Also, she worked as an advocate for independent living, but the requests for her to perform continued to grow. She finally told her husband, Bob Fletcher, who then was a manager at an insurance company and today is a management consultant, “I want to perform full-time.” Her husband said, “Okay, let’s take one year for you to try to make it happen.”
Verdi-Fletcher had majored in business at college. However, she had to quit college before she graduated because, “I was driving a car, and the car was completely consumed by fire. I just got out of the car in the nick of time, or else I would have died.”
Because of the intensity of the moment and her fight for survival, that included developing a pressure sore from the trauma, Verdi-Fletcher lost time in school and money. When she recovered, she went back to work and wasn’t able to complete her college education.
However, her strong background in business has helped her build and develop Dancing Wheels, which reaches over 6,000 people per year through education. The Dancing Wheels performance company has performed in front of 5 million people all over the United States and in several foreign countries.
“Our dance company is integrated – having both stand-up dancers and sit down-dancers,” Verdi-Fletcher explains. “So, we use the term “physically-integrated dance.” Verdi-Fletcher always has been an advocate for equality for people with disabilities and people without disabilities.
“Because there was no dance created for people in wheelchairs, in my mind’s eye, I wanted to make Dancing Wheels integrated and present equal opportunities for both stand-up and sit-own dancers. I soon learned that by integrating these two different types of dancers, we created a really new and unusual art form that the world never had seen previously.”
When Wheel:Life asked Verdi-Fletcher to describe what Dancing Wheels looks like, she explains, “It resembles a combination of stand-up dancing and ice skating. It has such a different type look and beauty to it. Once people have seen a performance, we’ve had them comment that as the couples dance across the floor they’re not conscious of the fact that one of the dancers is in a wheelchair. They don’t really notice who’s disabled and who isn’t. For me, those comments are the greatest compliments that anyone can give our dance company.”
Verdi-Fletcher soon learned that the more people who saw her programs, the more demand there was for Dancing Wheels to perform. She decided to develop an organization not only to perform but to teach and train stand-up dancers and sit-down dancers. Fate stepped in and provided unbelievable opportunities for Dancing Wheels.
She recalls, “I did a performance at a nursing care facility, and I noticed a striking young man sitting with an older person watching my performance. I wondered who he was. After the performance ended, one of the therapists at the nursing care facility came over and said, ‘We were visited today by a very special person – the new artistic director for the Cleveland Ballet.’”
The Cleveland Ballet is a world-class ballet company in Cleveland, Ohio. Verdi-Fletcher experienced a strange feeling and said to her dancing partner, “I feel that one day we’ll dance with the Cleveland Ballet.” Her partner smiled and replied, “You’re crazy. How are we ever going to be able to do anything with them?” Verdi-Fletcher told him, “I don’t know, but I just feel that’s going to happen.”
Later, this artistic director wrote Verdi-Fletcher and told her how impressed he was with her performance. Immediately, she wrote him back, thanking him, and added to her note, “I’d love to do something with the Cleveland Ballet one day.” He wrote back telling her he agreed, and fate took its’ course from there.
When Verdi-Fletcher decided to pursue a career with Dancing Wheels, she didn’t know where her career path would lead. As a backup plan, Verdi-Fletcher decided she needed another income while determining what to do as one of the first professional wheelchair dancers the world ever had seen.
“I decided to do some consulting work,” Verdi-Fletcher explains. “With the income from the consulting business, I thought I could pull enough money together to create a professional dance company made up of stand-up dancers and sit-down dancers.”
While searching for consulting jobs, Verdi-Fletcher found an ad for someone to help on the administrative side of the Cleveland Ballet. It seemed fate was stepping in yet again, as is often the case when a person is on his or her appointed path. Often, seemingly impossible things happen.
Verdi-Fletcher was hired to direct the performance of “Swan Lake” in Detroit, Michigan, and do other projects. As the director, her job was to bring together all the elements required to get the dancers, the musicians, the travel, the housing, the food and all the logistics required for the performances to take place. While working with the administrative staff of the Cleveland Ballet, she also met and made friends with many of the dancers.
While working for the Cleveland Ballet, Verdi-Fetcher discovered that the ballet needed an outreach program to the community, especially in the schools. Verdi-Fletcher told the Cleveland Ballet, “I can put together this outreach program, especially if you’ll let me work with some of the Cleveland Ballet dancers.”
She began working with, dancing with and choreographing with the professional Cleveland Ballet dancers and developed an outreach and educational program. She wrote scripts for the performances and demonstrated how and why everyone could participate regardless of their physical challenges.
“We combined information and dance together,” Verdi-Fletcher recalls. She decided she next wanted to do what’s known as main stage performances with a large group of dances with both stand-up dancers and sit-down dancers performing at the same time.
From this outreach program, she began to grow the organization now known as Dancing Wheels that today includes professional stand-up dancers, professional sit-down dancers and teachers to train people to dance and also to perform. She now had a feeder system of students who also could enjoy futures as teachers of dance.
As Dancing Wheels performed on major stages with a wide variety of choreography, the Dancing Wheels organization grew tremendously. Because of her association with the Cleveland Ballet, many of the dancers of the Cleveland Ballet would perform with the sit-down dancers.
When the organization performed on big stages, it included professional ballet dancers and trained sit-down dancers. She had a professional touring dance company as well as teachers and students under the banner of Dancing Wheels. The demand for this type of dance grew exponentially.
“Today we have 15 full-time dancers who work year-round as part of our touring company,” Verdi-Fletcher emphasizes. Verdi-Fletcher has built an organization to teach, promote and perform all over the world and has captured her dream, when she and her partner danced in the Cleveland Ballet’s performance of the “Nutcracker Suite” on the big stage. The Dancing Wheels Company now schedules 70 to 90 performances in the USA and in foreign countries, and according to Verdi-Fletcher, has performed in Russia, Poland, the Czech Republic, Canada, Trinidad and several other countries.
Dancing Wheels Today and What’s Left to Do
This huge dance company and dance school all started with Verdi-Fletcher’s dream of wanting to dance when she found herself in a wheelchair. “We have an integrated teaching division as a part of Dancing Wheels,” Verdi-Fletcher reports. “Our school is integrated with people in wheelchairs and stand-up dancers.” The school is located on Euclid Avenue in Cleveland, Ohio. Like many colleges and universities today, the Dancing Wheels school has two divisions – at the school and through outreach. Some students go to the school on Euclid Avenue, and other students have the school come to them.
“Our teachers go out and teach dance away from our location, and students come to our dance classes at our school weekly,” Verdi-Fletcher explains. “The majority of our students are younger people, but we also work with some older people, especially individuals with intellectual challenges.”
Combining the number of both the in-school and outreach students, Dancing Wheels teaches about 6,000 students per year. Currently, the number enrolled is 6,500. Students also have a path they can follow from being trainees to becoming apprentices and then possibly reach the level of instructor or touring company performers. The touring company performers are paid a weekly salary. When they’re not performing, they’re practicing from 9:00 am to 3:00 pm daily. Members of the touring company also receive paid vacations and paid holidays.
According to Verdi-Fletcher, “Our students come from all over the world – our community in Cleveland, other
schools of dance and disability organizations. We work with United Cerebral Palsy, Easter Seals, Youth Challenge and other groups who serve the wheelchair community. Some of our students are economically challenged. We have students visit from other countries, mostly in the summer, when we offer a summer intensive training program. Also, students from foreign countries may bring Dancing Wheels’ teachers in to teach them how to teach individuals in wheelchairs and stand-up individuals to dance. Some of our instructors teach other dancing instructors how to teach our form of dancing with both sit-down dancers and stand-up dancers.
“Mark Tomasic, our artistic advisor, and I have created a manual along with a DVD to help train dancing instructors on how to teach the Dancing Wheels form of dance. Copies of the manuals and the DVD can be purchased on our website at www.dancingwheels.org.
We also have instructors available to go to communities and countries to teach. We average sending instructors to about 20 different sites to teach each year. The classes are designed specifically for each venue, and what the organization wants to accomplish.
We do: 1 day seminars; 3 days of instruction with one performance; and week-long instruction, if that’s what the organization wants. One of the things we’re most excited about is the day when there are 50 integrated dance companies besides the Dancing Wheels Company worldwide.
“I believe that many of our students join the Dancing Wheels school and become a part of the Dancing Wheels Company because they view our form of dance as a different art form that gives back to the community in a way that nothing else can. Our form of dance inspires people who never may have thought that there’s a possibility they can dance. Our form of dancing also allows individuals to see themselves and their own abilities in a different way. I always think, ‘If I can dance in my wheelchair, what can you possibly do?’
“One day I’d like to see the Dancing Wheels Company on the TV show ‘Dancing with the Stars.’ Out in the future, I’d also like to have Derek Hough choreograph for Dancing Wheels. I’m not sure what will be required for these two things to happen, but I’m going to keep trying to contact ‘Dancing with the Stars’ and Derek Hough.”
When asked what kind of legacy she hopes to create, Mary said, “I’d like to be remembered as the woman who changed the face of dance for the world.”
Next year, Dancing Wheels celebrates its 35th anniversary, and the organization is planning to do an entire concert based on the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The group is also working with the Canton, Ohio, symphony orchestra that has commissioned Dancing Wheels to create a new dance to be performed with an original piece of new music.
For more information about Dancing Wheels, visit www.dancingwheels.org, or go to www.facebook.com/dancingwheels, or call 216-432-0306. To learn more about Mary Verdi-Fletcher, visit www.dancingwheels.org/artistic-director.asp.
About the Author: John E. Phillips
For the last 12 years, John E. Phillips of Vestavia, Alabama, has been a professional blogger for major companies, corporations and tourism associations throughout the nation. During his 24 years as Outdoor Editor for “The Birmingham Post-Herald” newspaper, he published more than 7,000 newspaper columns and sold more than 100,000 of his photos to newspapers, magazines and internet sites. He also hosted a radio show that was syndicated at 27 radio stations; created, wrote and sold a syndicated newspaper column that ran in 38 newspapers for more than a decade; and wrote and sold more than 30 books. Learn more at www.johninthewild.com.