Dances with Wheels

Disabled dancers find their footing with Karen Peterson

John Beauregard was 39 years old when he fell from a construction site and broke his neck.

In one awful moment, the builder who loved to ski became a C7 quadriplegic, largely paralyzed from the neck down. "I remember when I first got hurt and for all those many years, it's like you really don't want to be seen. I guess I'll say it: It's embarrassing to be in a chair. It's embarrassing to be handicapped," recalls Beauregard.

How this man, ashamed at being confined to a wheelchair, found himself in the spotlight as part of Karen Peterson and Dancers, Inc., is a tale that began at the University of Miami School of Medicine's Miami Project to Cure Paralysis. In 1997 he attended a lecture at Jackson Memorial Hospital touting an amazing new technique designed to help those with spinal cord injuries. But during the final few minutes of the talk, he learned although this wonder treatment would definitely work, it was good only for children. "The take-home message was you can't teach an old dog new tricks," scoffs Beauregard. "I go out of that lecture hall, and the very next door had a flyer on it that said modern dance mixed-ability classes — call this number. I took the whole thing down and said, 'Shit! Watch this. Think you can't teach an old dog new tricks?'"

Karen Peterson's troupe is redefining dance
Karen Peterson's troupe is redefining dance

Although — with the help of technology — he participated in many sports following the accident, he says everything always seemed a little short of something. "No matter what a great day skiing you had, it definitely wasn't as good as the best day you had when you were able-bodied. With dance I'd never ever done it or watched it or thought about it before. So every time I dance now, it's the best I've ever done." Nine years later, Beauregard is a veteran of Peterson's organization, a nine-member troupe that fuses the talents of able-bodied and disabled athletes. "It's not for everyone, but it should be," quips Beauregard.

Founded in 1989, Peterson's Miami-based integrated dance company is one of a growing number nationwide and will perform at Excello Dance Space April 28 through May 7. A disabled friend who wanted to get involved in the dance community introduced Peterson to the genre. Then a freelance choreographer having recently left Momentum Dance Company, Peterson created a piece that allowed her friend to participate onstage, accompanied by two professional dancers. "She wrote a text about her life, and she read the text onstage with us and she did very minimal gestures," says Peterson. "I was really looking at it as a sort of one-shot deal. I never thought I would continue to explore this dance form so many years later." Peterson has since showcased her choreography throughout Europe and Latin America in an effort to reinvent the stereotypical boundaries associated with dance. "The response is usually overwhelming," she adds. "We often end up at schools or rehab centers or hospital facilities, and the work has a very positive, can-do message to it."

Mixed-ability dance, which began to emerge in the mid-Eighties, is born partly of the world of contact improvisation, a dance form rooted in the anything-goes experimental movement of the Sixties and Seventies. But it also traces its roots to the broader social movement pressing for rights for the disabled. The genre has grown to such an extent it has begun to confront some difficult philosophical issues that challenge preconceived notions of dance and dancers — none perhaps more intriguing than defining the degree of mobility necessary in a movement-based art.

Peterson states the "two diverse populations are equal dance artists and contribute equally to the choreography." And her upcoming show features five numbers, all of which incorporate an equal ratio of able-bodied, professionally trained dancers and disabled participants. Performers are handpicked from auditions held each fall and, according to Peterson, greatly benefit from the work, "be it physically, emotionally, or psychologically." But is it enough for this dance form to be an experience that boosts the participant's self-esteem and encourages audiences to see the disabled in a new way? Are there artistic/aesthetic standards for people dancing in wheelchairs and with walkers?

Twenty-six-year-old Kara Sheridan has danced with Peterson's company for almost two years. Sneezing could cause one of her ribs to crack. Sheridan, who weighs less than 90 pounds, suffers from osteogenesis imperfecta, an inherited condition also known as brittle bone disease. "It means my bones break easier than most. I have full use of my limbs, but I use a wheelchair because I have had so many fractures."

Sheridan moved to Miami in 2003 to begin a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, but academia is just one area in which this Kentucky native excels. In 2004 she set two U.S. swimming records at the Paralympics in Athens, Greece. "I participated in sports all throughout college, swimming specifically, so when I moved to Miami, I was looking for active things that I could do with other people with disabilities. But I had a hard time finding other people here involved in sports, or coaches or teams."

Thanks to Peterson, Sheridan is turning to dance. "It's a misperception that if you're in a wheelchair, you're in it from sunup to sundown," she says. "People are, for some reason, really surprised when they see people get out of their wheelchair. You can hear the crowd gasp."

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