A new type of dance show is coming to Belhaven College Friday, May 20. Belhaven's dance department has teamed up with Methodist Rehabilitation Center, the USA International Ballet Competition and VSA Arts of Mississippi (Formerly Very Special Arts) to present "Tunes, Tutus, and Turning Wheels." What makes the performance unique is that, along with local dance artists, it features dancers who use wheelchairs.
Tom Burnley of Madison, Sheila Burnham of Madison and Randy Lavender of Tupelo will perform, as well as five Belhaven dance students and one Jackson-area high school student, Scarlett Wynne. Chairwoman of the Belhaven dance department Cynthia Newland, has previous experience choreographing for people with disabilities, having worked in the past with Joni Erickson Tada's organization "Joni and Friends."
This performance, free to the public, is made possible through funding from the Mississippi Paralysis Association and the central office of VSA arts. The show will feature recorded music from artists with disabilities, such as Derek Mortland, a guitarist who survived a motorcycle crash, and Renee Bondi, a singer who uses a wheelchair. The Mississippi Girlchoir's middle choir, Lyrica, directed by Erika Boyd, will perform live. Local singer/songwriter Doug Elzroth will also perform live.
V.A. Patterson, executive director of VSA arts of Mississippi, said: "Many people are denied the right to express themselves through dance because of a physical disability. We are so pleased to be a part of this project, which is giving people who use wheelchairs the opportunity to perform and to promote disability awareness to audiences across the state."
The performance will feature, "Prepositional Phrase," a dance that visually interprets familiar prepositions, while showcasing lighthearted interaction between those with and without disabilities. Also, the dancers will perform a piece titled "Sanctus," which weaves together themes of unity, religion and peace. Andy Leatherman, a sophomore Belhaven dance major from Dallas, spent last summer working at Camp Barnabas, a special-needs camp in Missouri. He believes Belhaven's dance department will continue to incorporate people with disabilities into their programs; "Cynthia said we need to keep these things going on. This is where her heart is and where mine is too."
Amy Dick, a junior Belhaven dance major from Winchester, Va., explained, "We've tried to explore what's possible given our different abilities, and we've been able to meet people that we wouldn't have met otherwise. We've been given a glimpse into their world and seen ways that we can grow that we might not have ordinarily thought of."
When someone doesn't move and get circulation, it can hurt their immune system, and Leatherman said this type of thing is beneficial to disabled peoples' bodies. Tom Burnley, one of the wheelchair dancers performing at the event, said: "Since my spinal cord injury, I'm always thinking of reasons to be thankful, and my involvement in this is something I'm very thankful for. It's been enlightening and a lot of fun. It's been good for the spirit."
Because of the freedom the dancers are given to improvise and be creative, Leatherman said he enjoys this type of performance more so than typical performances. "There is not a codified language with this, like there is in ballet and modern dance. Dealing with different bodies, you have to tailor movement to the person. This deals with improvisation, being completely creative out of the blue."
While the ideas are cumulative, Leatherman said, the choreography is ultimately Newland's. Amy Dick said, "I've really enjoyed the experimental creative process we've used in rehearsals."
Burnley, who was involved in theater prior to his injury, "has always wanted to be a mover," Leatherman said. "It's really neat to watch him see what he can do, explore what he's capable of, and doing new things he's never done before."
During one piece, Burnley, who has a low injury affecting his balance, will be out of his chair and on crutches. "It's incredible, from a dancer point of view, dealing with this movement style," Leatherman said.
How did all of this come together? "Cynthia and I have been talking about getting a program for people in wheelchairs, and we've been working on that since last year," Leatherman said.
The other Belhaven dancers are Sarah Carey, a freshman dance major from Rochester, N.Y., Meg Ferris, a senior dance major from Nashville, Tenn., and Rachel Hellmuth, a sophomore dance major from Longview, Texas.
Newland said, "During rehearsals, we have laughed and learned a lot about our own varied abilities and how to communicate together using the language of dance. We hope this concert will stir the soul and the imagination as varied artistic expressions are presented in the forms of music, fine art and dance."
For more information about the performance, beginning at 7:30 p.m. at Belhaven's Center for the Arts on Riverside Drive, contact Nicole Bradshaw of the USA IBC at 601-355-9853.