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Wheelchair Dance: Five Years Later

by Abbie Harper
November 4, 2006
Kitty Lunn fell in love with ballet at the age of eight when her grandmother took her to see The Red Shoes. Through hard work and dedication, she was dancing principal roles with the New Orleans Civic Ballet by the age of fifteen. Her work in New Orleans led to a scholarship with the Washington Ballet where she danced in numerous ballets such as Swan Lake, Giselle, Les Sylphides and The Nutcracker. While preparing for her first Broadway show, she slipped on ice, fell down a flight of stairs and broke her back. Nineteen years later, Kitty Lunn is a paraplegic using a wheelchair… and she is still dancing. She is the founder and artistic director of Infinity Dance Theater, where she continues to work on behalf of performing artists with disabilities, developing wheelchair dance techniques.

In November of 2001, ExploreDance.com featured an article exploring the world of wheelchair dancing. Five years later, wheelchair dance, or integrated dance, is still going strong in the United States and worldwide. Kitty Lunn's incredible company is just one of many organizations determined to bring together the dance and disabled communities by transforming the ways in which people view disability.

In the United States, integrated dance companies are continuing to reach out to the community, raising society's awareness and understanding of mixed ability dance not only through performances, but also by offering educational workshops and classes, as well as advocating for new mixed ability dance opportunities. Here are the updates on the integrated dance companies mentioned in the November 2001 article:

- AXIS, the San Francisco based company, continues to pave the way for what they like to call "physically integrated dance." The past five years have been very exciting for AXIS, as they have been given numerous awards for their groundbreaking performances, and have collaborated with some of the nation's most exciting choreographers including Bill T. Jones.

- In Cleveland, Dancing Wheels continues to lead the way in the integrated dance world with two world premiers in their 2006-2007 season. In November, this innovative wheelchair dance company will premier, in collaboration with Cleveland Sight Center, a story ballet about the adult life of Helen Keller and her accomplishments as a pioneering force for women, people with disabilities and the civil rights movement. In April of next year, Dancing Wheels will premier a story ballet based on the classic Alice in Wonderland.

- Last year, Atlanta's Full Radius Dance produced Dance Synergy: Celebrating 25 Years of Integrated Dance. This performance gave audiences the opportunity to see Full Radius Dance, Dancing Wheels, and AXIS Dance Company in one unforgettable show.

In addition to these companies, there are many other integrated dance companies in the United States. Karen Peterson and Dancers, Inc. was established in 1989 in Miami, Florida, and is one of the larger integrated dance companies in the United States, with ten able-bodied and eleven wheelchair dancers. In addition to the extensive work she has done with her own company, Ms. Peterson is also a founding member of danceAble, an annual conference of mixed-ability dance research. Alito Alessi, founder of Joint Forces Dance Company in Eugene, Oregon, is also the creator of the DanceAbility method. This method uses improvised dance to promote equality, respect and artistic exploration between people with and without disabilities. Mr. Alessi has created the DanceAbility teacher certification program, a four-week full-time intensive where participants learn to design creative movement practices that allow diversified movement to emerge. So far, more than two hundred people have completed this training.

The world of integrated dance is growing to embrace more than just people confined to wheelchairs. Integrated dance is also reaching out to dancers in the deaf and blind communities, and several of the companies mentioned in this article utilize dancers with developmental disabilities such as Down syndrome.

The International Center on Deafness and the Arts in Northbrook, Illinois has their own dance company, ICODance. ICODance, which features deaf, hard of hearing and hearing dancers performing together, presents a dance concert every year. ICODA also operates a dance studio, with classes open to children and adults who are deaf, hard of hearing and hearing. All classes are taught in both American Sign Language and spoken English.

Internationally, several companies are making sure the message of integrated dance generates a global impact. CanddoCo (pronounced see-and-do) is London-based, but throughout the year, their seven full-time company members tour to 50 countries. In addition to this grueling performance schedule, CanddoCo also runs a year-round program of integrated dance education and training projects, including workshops, international summer schools, professional development programs and an integrated youth dance company named Cando II. In Eastern England, StopGAP Dance Company has been touring the UK and the US since 1997, creating opportunities for all people to have access to dance. Similarly, New Zealand's Touch Compass Dance Trust aims to break down physical and psychological barriers so all people who have a passion for dance can dance.

Competitive integrated dance, focusing on Ballroom and Latin American Dance styles, is also thriving. Recently, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) sponsored the Wheelchair Dance Sport World Championships in the Netherlands. Sixty-six couples from eighteen different countries competed In front of an audience of over five hundred spectators. Dancers competed in both Combi-Dance (one wheelchair and one non-disabled dancer) and Duo-Dance (two wheelchair dancers). In 2004, Duo-Dance was approved as an official competition style by the IPC General Assembly. Wheelchair Dance Sport is an official sport in the Summer Paralympic Games, which take place every four years on the Olympic calendar. A positive side-note: beginning in 2012, the host city chosen to host the Olympic Games will also be required to host the Paralympics.

The future of integrated dance is bright and extremely promising from inclusive competitive dance to innovative dance companies. Through pioneering performances and widespread outreach, artistic and social growth are inevitable not only for dancers in wheelchairs, but for the entire dance community. Who knows what exciting integrated dance opportunities the next five years will bring?!


For a complete listing of integrated dance organizations in the United States, visit this website compiled by the National Endowment for the Arts.
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