Dancing Wheels Company History
Having been born with spina bifida and despite the stereotypical boundaries that were placed on her by being in a wheelchair, Mary Verdi-Fletcher always wanted to be a professional dancer and was certainly not going to let her disability stand in her way. In 1980, she and her non-disabled partner entered the "Dance Fever" competition and never told anyone she was in a wheelchair. Her startling appearance led to a standing ovation by over 2,000 people in the audience, and she was placed as an alternate to go to California to compete on the nationally televised show.
This determination ultimately led Mary to found The Dancing Wheels Company right here in Cleveland in 1980, which was specifically formed to employ professionally-trained dancers, with and without disabilities. This innovative idea took America by storm and in their first year alone, The Dancing Wheels Company garnered immediate acceptance and was in high demand, with Mary and her troupe presenting more than 72 performances. Ten years later, The Dancing Wheels Company joined forces with the Cleveland Ballet to create Cleveland Ballet Dancing Wheels, becoming a unique co-venture for a major ballet company that continued for nearly a decade.
36 years later, the Company is now comprised of 15 professional dancers with and without disabilities and is traveling the globe performing, advocating disability awareness, and entertaining children and adults with and without disabilities. This concept was uncharted territory in the world of dance, but Mary’s passion and perseverance has revolutionized the idea of dance and the notion of who should or could participate. In fact, since its beginning in 1980, Mary and The Dancing Wheels Company have reached audiences of over 5 million people with awe-inspiring school assembly programs, workshops, residencies, and main stage concert performances worldwide. These extraordinary numbers represent normal citizens that are touched by Mary's dream of making the arts accessible to all people of all abilities.
Mary and her associates also created and produced the first manual and DVD on integrated dance in America in 2012, which is used for training students worldwide. Specifically, the training materials teach how to translate dance movements for a wheelchair dancer, as well as demonstrate explicit class work, rehabilitation methods, and prepare individuals with disabilities for professional training. A number of colleges and universities have begun working with Mary to create physically integrated dance programs, therefore in response to these requests, codifying our technique and training methods will lay the groundwork to establish a certification program and an eventual accreditation program for physically integrated dance. As many university thesis papers and educational manuscripts have been written about Mary and the Company, this was the next logical step for this pioneer in the field.
Because she is determined to offer performances from esteemed choreographers that open up the eyes of the community as to what is possible through the arts, Mary garners respect from the public. She and The Dancing Wheels Company have been featured on the television special Christopher Reeve: A Celebration of Hope, in Dance Magazine, The New York Times, CNN, Good Morning America, Sesame Street, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, and numerous national and international magazines and print media. Mary has two published books on the Company, a televised documentary on integrated dance in America, a documentary narrated by Al Roker, and has worked with such luminaries as choreographer Donald McKayle, Ben Vereen, Robin Williams, Christopher and Dana Reeve, James Ingram, Tommy Tune, Paula Abdul, Mr. T and many more. She and Dancing Wheels have over 70 commissioned works (in all genres of dance: ballet, modern, jazz, hip-hop) in their repertory from notable choreographers Dianne McIntrye, Donald McKayle, Ginger Thatcher, Stuart Pimsler, David Rousseve, and Keith Young, among others—all who came to Dancing Wheels not knowing what integrated dance was, yet received an educational and enlightening experience working with the Company.
As the President/Founding Artistic Director of The Dancing Wheels Company & School, Mary works countless hours to impact the lives of 30,000 children and adults each year. She secures funding for over 40% of our students with disabilities and socio-economic challenges to be able to attend our classes on scholarship, consistently offers first-rate performances from some of the nation's best choreographers, and tours to 70-90 locations each year. She has also assisted in the development of three other physically integrated dance companies in America by providing guidance, models and program development.
Because of her accomplishments in furthering the physically integrated dance movement, Dancing Wheels and Mary have received the following prestigious awards throughout the last 36 years:
- 2016 Cleveland Arts Prize Lifetime Award recipient
- Named the 2015 Grand Marshall for the New York City Dance Parade
- 2014 Ohio Dance Award recipient
- The 2014 Ohio Governor’s Award for Arts Education
- The 2014 Henry Viscardi Award for Disability Awareness (alongside actress Marlee Matlin)
- Emmy for narrating and hosting an arts series entitled “Short Cuts to Happiness”.
- Outstanding Young Clevelander Award (1990)
- James Brady Award for Rehabilitation ((1998)
- YWCA Woman of Achievement Award (1993)
- National Rehabilitation Achievement Award (2001)
- Northern Ohio Magazine Achievement Award for 25 years of service (2005)
- Ohio Theater Alliance Award
- One of 14 finalist for the National Leadership for a Changing World Award
- Finalist for the Henry Betts Award
- Miss Wheelchair Ohio
- First Runner up to Miss Wheelchair America
- Mary Verdi-Fletcher, born with spina bifida and using a wheelchair for mobility, creates Dancing Wheels, Mary’s first appearance was for an audience of over 2,000 people.
- Mary and her partner as a duet ensemble travel throughout the nation performing 72 shows in one year.
- Mary and her partner are chosen to appear on the Walt Disney national TV show “Up and Coming”.
- Mary and her husband marry and they agree for Mary to pursue her dream to dance full time.
- Mary first connects with then Artistic Director of Cleveland Ballet, Dennis Nahat.
- Professional Flair Inc. is established as an arts/disability 501C3 organization that serves as the parent organization for Dancing Wheels.
- Cleveland San Jose Ballet signs a licensing agreement to have Dancing Wheels perform educational programming under the name Cleveland Ballet Dancing Wheels.
- Mary receives her first government grant from the Ohio Arts Council and her ensemble of Ballet dancers travel the nation performing and teaching.
- Dancing Wheels community classes begin.
- Dancing Wheels debut performance in New York City at the Morningside Dance Festival.
- Actor entertainer, Ben Vereen donates a performance with Dancing Wheels to help raise funds and awareness.
- School of Dancing Wheels is established.
- Mary produces the Company’s first citywide fundraising/awareness event entitled “The Best of Accessible Cleveland” with over 20 dancers performing.
- Mary finalized the first Dancing Wheels off shoot with an agreement to form the Atlanta based DanceAblity Dancing Wheels Georgia- later morphed into what is known as Full Radius.
- Co-Artistic Director and 5 dancers are secured on full time contracts.
- Mary suffers a medical setback with the loss of her sole kidney, husband donates his kidney and her wheels were back in motion.
- Mary and the Company are covered by CNN Good Morning America and numerous other media sources.
- Mary and the Company visits and performs and for dance legend May O’Donnell who sanctions her work to be integrated by the Company.
- Members of the Dancing Wheels Company perform for the Paralympics in Atlanta Georgia.
- Hollywood Choreographer, Keith Young creates a work for Mary and two male dancers from Cleveland Ballet that premieres in Hollywood and is debuted on national TV on the Christopher Reeve: A Celebration of Hope event.
- The Sorcerer's Apprentices premieres, a story ballet that tours to the Kennedy Center and throughout the nation.
- A capital campaign is successful in raising $250,000. Dancing Wheels moves to the third floor of The Masonic Temple undertaking major renovations to ensure that the new Dancing Wheels studios, offices and school are accessible.
- Cleveland San Jose Ballet and Dancing Wheels end the licensing agreement. Dancing Wheels secures rights to The Snowman and funding is secured to create, build and mount the production.
- World premiere of the Company’s major story book ballet, The Snowman, performed over 20 performances in its first year.
- Board of Directors and outside consultants create a financial plan that successfully restores financial stability in the organization.
- Mary and her dancers travel to Prague to teach and perform.
- Dancing Wheels Company and School are featured on CBS Sunday Morning.
- 25th Anniversary of Dancing Wheels and Integrated Dance in America. The Company produces a made for television documentary on America’s first Integrated Company; Dancing Wheels.
- Mary and Company member, Hoang Dance travel to Poland to teach and perform at an international dance festival.
- Dancing Wheels receives its first major sustaining grant from Cuyahoga Arts & Culture
- Dancing Wheels Company premieres Pinocchio! Choreographed by Ginger Thatcher.
- Donald McKayle sets new work on Dancing Wheels performed with the Cleveland Jazz Orchestra at Playhouse Square.
- 30th anniversary; Choreographer Dianne McIntryre creates a full length work entitled Dancing in My Dreams” as a tribute to Mary’s life. Gloria Gaynor, singer/entertainer appears on stage with the Company.
- Creates and unveils the first training manual on integrated dance; First three runs sold out.
- Wins substantial grant by getting the most votes from the residents of Cuyahoga County; Mounts a full length story book ballet about anti bullying, creates an outreach program that travels to 27 libraries and writes and produces a made for television documentary narrated by Al Roker.
- Dancing Wheels premieres Babes in Toyland choreographed by Catherine Meredith.
- Mary and Rehearsal Director tour to Moscow for an international performance festival
- Celebrates 35th anniversary and 25th anniversary of the ADA with a full length concert by 5 renowned choreographers on the theme of the ADA.
- Chosen as one of the presenting organization at the National Convening of Physically Integrated Dance in New York City.
- Summer Intensive teacher training leads to the Company’s quest for a formal certification program
- Awarded by DanceNYC to present a full length concert in New York City featuring a premiere work by David Dorfman
- Creates the first virtual classroom training on the Dancing Wheels methods of Physically Integrated Dance
From 1980-through today the Dancing Wheels Company has performed from 70-90 performances globally each and every year.