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Video by Stephen Hegg and Natalie Monahan/KCTS 9/Crosscut

How these dancers invent new movement with a wheelchair

SEATTLE — In an open, bright studio, dancers Charlene Curtiss and Joanne Petroff take the floor for rehearsal.

Curtiss moves with the help of a wheelchair; Petroff is a “stand-up,” a performer who does not have a disability and experienced in working with a performer who uses a wheelchair. They are the creative forces behind Light Motion Dance, a physically integrated dance company based in Seattle.

Curtiss, who has paraplegia, sustained a spinal cord injury after a gymnastics accident when she was 17. A year after an inspiring encounter with Brazilian musicians during a visit abroad, she soon began experimenting with dancing with the front-end of her wheelchair off the ground. Curtiss then formed Light Motion Dance in 1988, inviting Petroff to join the company two years later.

Their dance piece “Blue Ascending,” set to a wash of music by Enya, is an elegant and graceful partnering accentuated by a mesmerizing motion of wheels, and the push and pull of both partners — motion that isn’t possible with two non-disabled dancers. The wheelchair expands the dancers’ movement vocabulary: Counterbalance, pushing away from a wall, or a slope control are techniques that many in wheelchairs use every day. Curtiss masters those in dance, and Petroff, as a stand-up, invents movements to complement Curtiss’ momentum, arc, speed and spinning wheels.

“Stand-ups who don’t have experience in an integrated setting are very nervous about dancing with someone in a wheelchair because they’re afraid they’re going to get run over — and so you have to desensitize that fear,” Curtiss explained.

“I know pretty much what Char’s turning rate is,” Petroff said. “When I get run over it’s usually my fault.”

This report originally appeared on Crosscut.

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