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I use a wheelchair and I’m still happily dancing - and coming to Miami

Here are AXIS Dancers performing their piece “The Reflective Surface,” which they’ll stage again at Saturday’s show.
Here are AXIS Dancers performing their piece “The Reflective Surface,” which they’ll stage again at Saturday’s show. David DaSilva

Although I use a wheelchair, dance is an essential part of who I am. I communicate and express myself through movement to tell stories about being human, about who we are.

I have always felt a need to dance and create work for dancers and that need has taken me all over the world, including Miami next week. My ensemble, AXIS Dance Company, will be part of the Forward Motion Physically Integrated Dance Festival & Conference here in Miami that runs from Sept. 26-29. Yes, it’s a unique dance company of disabled and non-disabled dancers, but it’s an example that disabled people have unique stories to tell and a different perspective on the world because they have lived experiences and challenges.

This influences our creative process, the how and why we make our work. It’s honest, it’s real, it’s diverse, it’s not pretending, and people relate to the work on a human level. Having grown up in Jerilderie, a small country town in New South Wales, Australia with a population of 900 people, there were limited opportunities for the only boy in the village who wanted to dance.

My supportive single parent mother put me into dance class, but I was teased and bullied by a majority of the village kids and adults as I was different, and wasn’t interested in playing sports like football and cricket. Leaving home at age 11 to go to boarding school I first studied as a professional dancer with the Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School, and the Australian Ballet School and performing with The Australian Ballet in Melbourne and the State Theatre Ballet Company of South Africa. But then my life and the direction of my career changed and deepened in a sudden turn of events — a car accident left me with a serious spinal cord injury. I was told that I would never walk again and was paralyzed from the chest down. Giving up was not for me. I pushed myself through extensive rehabilitation, having been used to injury as a dancer, taking this on as a challenge. My changed circumstances forced me to develop a new philosophy and aesthetics for dance. Although I couldn’t walk, stand, leap, or even point my feet anymore, I still felt I was a dancer. Although my body had changed, the dancer was still within me. It was then when I realized I had to alter my own perception of what a dancer was, and what it meant for me to dance.

I could still express myself though movement, share my artistry through dance, I just had to find other ways to explore my physicality and what I could do. I started to look at finding solutions, rather than focus on the problems, and to use the idea of restriction to create new and interesting possibilities for movement.

This included how I could move with my changed form, how I used my wheelchair , and also getting out of the chair on the floor, or being partnered and dancing with others. My career has amazingly flourished in a new direction since the accident. I spent time in New York studying with Kitty Lunn and dancing with her company Infinity Dance Theater and I was invited to join the London-based Candoco Dance Company, one of the world’s top contemporary companies that includes disabled and non-disabled dancers. After six years with Candoco, I dedicated time to my own choreography with Marc Brew Company and working with numerous ballet and contemporary dance companies around the world. Since then, I have become the artistic director in AXIS Dance Company in Oakland, California, a leader in physically integrated dance in the U.S. People with disabilities are often shunted aside by the societies in which we live — ignored, discriminated against, or barely tolerated. Today though many of us have forged new movements, new ways of living, finding in our commonalities and our differences a strength that begins to change the world. That has been my experience, and in my work as a dancer and a choreographer, I have tried to express the best of who I am, of who we are, and find the beauty in the challenges we face. Marc Brew and his ensemble, AXIS Dance Company, will be part of the Forward Motion Physically Integrated Dance Festival & Conference in Miami from Sept, 26-29. For a schedule of performances, workshops and conference activities visit www. ForwardMotionMiami.com.

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