On Feet Or Wheels, Phoenix Workshop Shows Dancers How To Make Their Own Moves

Published: Tuesday, December 27, 2016 - 5:23pm
Updated: Thursday, December 29, 2016 - 4:22pm
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(Photo by Annika Cline - KJZZ)
Allyson Yoder (right) leads the class through a partner exercise during Dance Mixability.

Picture a dance. Whatever it is that comes to mind when you hear the word. Maybe it’s a ballerina leaping or a group moving in synchronized choreography. Or maybe it’s two people tangled in a tango. Whatever it is, they’re probably using their feet, right?

But at a recent dance workshop in Phoenix, most of the dancers’ feet never even touched the ground.

When Lea Laffartha danced at the workshop, she was accompanied by a whirring sound that slid in and out of the music. It was from her power chair as it zoomed across the wood floor of the dance studio.

“It’s a process. You kind of have to relearn how to do everything,” Laffartha said.

When she started using the chair, Laffartha had to relearn how to move around her own home, how to get in and out of buildings with obstructions like stairs and how to dance.

“The chair is a tool, because without it I would be hunched up and immobile,” Laffartha said.

Jolene De Tiege has branched out from her hobby of acting to give dance a try. She said for her, it takes the chair beyond just a practical tool.

“As far as in dance, it’s almost like an extension of yourself and you’re kind of moving with the wheelchair and you’re kind of using it as part of different dance scenarios,” De Tiege said.

Allyson Yoder is a local dancer and one of the facilitators of this three-hour workshop, called Dance Mixability. She guided the class through a resistance exercise.

“And we’re just going to explore light resistance. See what that feels like,” she instructed the class. “Being cognizant of the chair and the joystick.”

Yoder does not use a wheelchair, but she guides the four wheelchair dancers and one able-bodied dancer through different exercises, always reminding them to translate movement in their own way.

“So put the idea of it into your own body in whatever way that looks like for you,” she said.

“Sometimes people just don’t think that people in wheelchairs are able to dance,” said participant Katie Griffith.

Griffith has been interested in inclusive dance classes for years, but said the classes she’s tried to attend have been inconsistent. She’s really hoping this workshop becomes a regular class she can take.

“Just to be out there and be able to show people that just because I use a wheelchair doesn’t define me, is really something that makes me proud that I’m able to do that,” Griffith said.

Wheelchair dancing itself is nothing new. In fact, many dance groups around the country bring in dancers of different body types to emphasize diversity, rather than hunting for dancers with the same body type.

“I truly believe that every single person has a dancer inside of them already,” said Marisa Hamamoto, founder of Infinite Flow, a wheelchair ballroom dance company in California.

She’s able-bodied, but recovering from a temporary paralyzation in 2006 led her to want to teach dancers with and without disabilities. She said the idea of dancing is kind of intimidating for people across the board.

“There’s tons of people that come to me saying, 'Hey, I have two left feet.' And I have a ton of people that come to me and say, 'Hey, I have two left wheels, what am I supposed to do?'” Hamamoto said.

She added that teaching them, yes, they actually can dance is one and the same. She said she’s noticed what holds wheelchair users back is not the chair, but how people perceive them.

Yoder has led Dance Mixability workshops a few times, and plans to offer them more regularly next year. She wants participants to teach, too, so she can learn from the dancers using wheelchairs.

“Another area of interest for me is like, how do I adapt my body to the kinds of moves that people in chairs are able to do, like with the power chairs, the kind of like swooping and gliding,” Yoder said.

At one point in the workshop, Laffartha makes a suggestion to try to mirror each other’s movements in sweeping circles. They really pick up speed in the chairs.

“You guys are so glidy!” Yoder laughed. “I was like, how do I glide?”

Turns out you can fit a lot of different movement into 3/4 time.

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