Four Wheels Good

By Mike Ervin

The dancers have shed their street clothes and piled them atop a piano in the corner of a studio. The window is open a few inches, and the grinding and whistling sounds of the el drift in. Cracks in a pane of glass are covered with duct tape.

Joffrey Ballet choreographer Davis Robertson squats beside a small black boom box, ready to start the music. The dancers assume their positions. Three are in wheelchairs. Alana and Ginger position their chairs side by side, about two feet apart. Normez sits to the rear and off to the right, a bandanna wrapped around his head that says POW/MIA. His hands grip the wheels of his chair like he’s ready to thrust himself forward. Gregory hoists himself between Alana and Ginger and secures his footing. With one foot on the edge of each chair, he’s balanced like the top man in a human pyramid.

Robertson pushes a button and the music begins. Woodwinds. The piece is called “A Portrait of Hitch,” as in Hitchcock. It’s from the sound track of the movie The Trouble With Harry.

The music breaks into a brisk tempo. Gregory leaps off the chairs and lands on the floor, his legs folded in the lotus position. Taryn and Nicole spin beside him and slither toward the front. Alana pumps her arms in unison with their movements. Nicole and Taryn retreat and clasp arms with Ginger and Alana, whirling their wheelchairs in circles. Normez shoots into the open space, pops a wheelie, and does a tight spin.

This is a collaboration between members of the Joffrey Ballet and Alana Smith’s dance company, Dance Detour. It’s Smith’s biggest coup so far in her quest to promote what she calls “integrated dance.” Yet, before forming Dance Detour three years ago, she never had any desire to dance.

Smith has used a wheelchair and crutches for 40 years, ever since polio struck her at age five. In college she majored in theater. While she would act and sing onstage, she never considered dancing. Wheelchair dancing was occasionally offered at Spaulding High School on the west side where Smith attended, but she thought it was patronizing. They’d do things like square dancing with volunteers pushing wheelchairs and do-si-do-ing back and forth.

“It was laughable,” she says. And that was her image of wheelchair dancing for many years. Then a friend dragged her to see Dancing Wheels, an integrated dance subsidiary of the Cleveland Ballet. It blew Smith away.

“The grace, the technique, the syncopation of the movements. It was unlike anything I had ever seen before.” There was even a duet between a paraplegic woman and a male partner, who was a “stand-up,” as Smith calls them. The woman’s wheelchair wasn’t even onstage. It began with both dancers sitting on the floor. The man lifted and carried the woman, and sometimes they moved together on the floor.

“I didn’t think I would see people interpreting dance on a professional level,” Smith says. “I thought they would just be playing with dance. But the stand-ups were doing full body dance. I thought the stand-ups were going to have to stoop to someone else’s level. But there was equal artistry on the part of all the dancers. They were equal partners. That’s what was so fascinating.”

Whenever she tried to describe what she saw that night she’d throw up her hands and say, “You just have to see it.” But out of that evening came Smith’s philosophy for Dance Detour: “Dance is an expression of your soul and your spirit, not your body shell.” The troupe currently has eight members, half of whom are stand-ups.

Smith says Dance Detour is one of about 20 integrated dance troupes in the U.S. and Europe. “When you have a disability, it’s like a detour,” she says. “You still get there. You just take an alternative route.”

To Smith, wheelchair dancing is a lot like ice dancing–you glide in your chair like you glide on skates. And it serves a political purpose as well. “The reason performing has always been important to me is we’re always given messages that when we see somebody with a disability, we’re supposed to politely look away. So it’s a challenge to me. I want to be onstage front and center. And I want it to be in an arena where I was never encouraged to belong.”

The first choreographer Smith convinced to work with Dance Detour was Homer Bryant of Bryant Ballet. They’ve been collaborating for about two years. Currently they’re working at his studio in Dearborn Station on a piece for an upcoming benefit. Smith is the prima ballerina in this one. Men in shiny red capes surround her, their wingspans spread full to form a curtain. Bryant flips on tango music. He’s an excitable, demonstrative man who seems to always be on the edge of his seat. As the music opens, violins weeping, the men circle Smith slowly. On the first hard beat they open their capes with a snap, and Smith thrusts downstage. The men spin off into four corners. They take turns whirling her chair in a circle before whipping her on to the next dancer. Bryant can’t help himself. He jumps up from his seat and stomps his feet hard like a flamenco dancer.

Afterward, Smith flexes her arm and rubs her shoulder. “Darryl is pulling my arm out of joint!” she says. The stand-ups need a lighter touch when it comes to controlling the momentum of a moving wheelchair.

Bryant was an easy sell because his 15-year-old daughter, who has cerebral palsy, uses a wheelchair too. She can’t speak and has little control over her body movements. “Sometimes I bring her down to watch the dancing,” he says. “And in her eyes she’s dancing.”

Soon after meeting Smith, Bryant started offering a wheelchair dance class. He admits his motivation at first was just to provide therapy for the participants, never expecting it would have any artistic value. “But then I got to thinking, how far can I take this? And I realized I could do it a long way. And Alana was bold enough to try anything, so I thought I’ll be bold enough to choreograph her doing it.”

Now Bryant says he almost feels limited working only with those who dance on their feet. And he loves the way audiences go wild over integrated dance. But will the novelty wear off?

“Not if the art is fresh,” Smith says. “It’s just like everything. People will get tired of stand-ups unless the art is fresh. New ideas keep coming out.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos of Alana Smith, and “Dance Detour” by Robert Drea.