Class integrates disabled and able-bodied dancers

by ekramer on February 20, 2008

This Friday a well-known professional dance company that includes disabled dancers performs in Elizabethtown in its first visit to Kentucky. Here in Louisville, connecting the disabled community with the able bodied through dance has been a passion of a local mother and daughter, as WFPL’s Elizabeth Kramer reports.

Dancers glide around the room, some on foot, others in wheelchairs. In this class at the Louisville Ballet School, their teacher, Loren Freed, leads them. She asks them to visualize a color and let their imaginations inspire their next moves.

“And now extend this color out through your eyes and make eye contact with somebody else,” she tells them.

One woman in a wheelchair catches a glimpse of herself in the mirror. Her moves become broader as she watches her long hair swing when she glides. Another giggles when Freed makes eye contact with her and moves closer.

She is Morgan Crawford. Morgan is 23 and has cerebral palsy. About 10 years ago, her mother took her to Cleveland to attend a workshop with a company called Dancing Wheels. Morgan learned how to dance with her wheelchair and how to partner with fully functional dancers. She even learned to catch them as they jumped into her arms.

Morgan loves dancing and how it makes her feel.

“The same as other people, as people that walk,” she says.

Every week, Morgan taps into that feeling by taking the class, which is taught by two instructors who use different methods. These integrated dance classes began at the school in 2000, after Morgan’s trip to Cleveland. Her mother, Mary Crawford, recounted that experience to Clark Reid, who was retiring as a Louisville Ballet principal dancer. He helped launch the classes. But the school stopped offering them after the ballet had budget shortfalls.

By 2006, Morgan missed her dance classes. To revive them, she enlisted the help of her mother, Mary Crawford.

“We decided it was time to try and start it up again and I spoke with Elizabeth Hartwell and some others there about trying to get it going again,” she says.

Hartwell is the director of the Louisville Ballet School. She says she is committed to offering the class.

It is an effort occurring in the midst of a phenomenon of integrated companies that have emerged in the U.S. and in the United Kingdom. Dancing Wheels is the oldest company in this country. The most famous is AXIS Dance, which performs in Elizabethtown on Friday and has a repertoire with works by renowned choreographers.

Doug Sonntag is the director of dance at the National Endowment for the Arts. He says that these companies exist out of their founders’ sheer determination.

“They seem to flourish where there’s a very tenacious person that is not going to be told that they can’t dance,” he says. “If you look at where they’ve sprung up, you can almost always trace it back to a single, strong individual who just decided they were going to do it.”

But Morgan’s not interested in forming such a company here and neither is the Louisville Ballet. The company’s artistic director, Bruce Simpson, says he just wants to make dance available to more people.

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re a prima ballerina on point or you have some kind of physical disability,” he says. “It’s the ability to move in some manner that really is so rewarding. I just hope that people are aware that the class is there and that they get out of it the same as anybody else would get from any other dance experience — that is a completely, deeply personal experience.”

Mary Crawford hopes the class will grow to include more able-bodied dancers and that that will eventually translate into a community where the disabled aren’t segregated.

“I think that the more inclusive it becomes, the more it’ll be a statement of people with disabilities being part of the community and not a separate group dancing over here,” she says. “It’ll be just a dance class.”

Listen to the story.

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