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The Art of Dancing With a Wheelchair

How a wheelchair can expand the dance vocabulary.

June 20, 2018

In an open, bright studio, dancers Charlene Curtiss and Joanne Petroff take the floor for a rehearsal of their piece, “Blue Ascending.” Curtiss moves with the help of a wheelchair; Petroff, who is able-bodied, is a “stand up.” They are the creative forces behind Light Motion Dance, a physically integrated dance company based in Seattle.

Curtiss became paraplegic after a gymnastics accident when she was 17. After an inspiring encounter with Brazilian musicians during a visit abroad, she soon began 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 in 1990.

Their dance piece, 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 able-bodied dancers. The wheelchair, in fact, expands the dancers’ movement vocabulary.

“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 explains.

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


Natalie Monahan

Natalie Monahan is a senior journalism student at Seattle University. She is the head producer at The Redhawk Entertainment Network, a student-run broadcast station at Seattle University. She interned for KCTS 9 in Spring 2018 and is particularly interested in stories about arts and culture. More stories by Natalie Monahan

Stephen Hegg

Stephen is a 25-year veteran of KCTS, producing a wide range of cultural and public affairs series, documentaries and arts programming.  His credits include PIE, Something in the Water  (PBS feature on Seattle’s indie music scene), the gala opening of Benaroya Hall, and documentaries on Asahel and Edward Curtis, Dan Sullivan and Doris Chase.  Seattle-born, Hegg is a graduate of Whitworth University and is also an accomplished violinist and avid cyclist.

More stories by Stephen Hegg

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shailagadre's picture

I feel the dancing spirit of the person in the wheelchair. (However, it also makes me want to enhance the wheelchair design to make visually more beautiful to better fit the flow of the dance). How wonderful this person is still 'free' in spite of having a bodily handicap of having to be in a wheelchair and then to have a dancing partner who loves to dance with her!! 'Kya baat hain?' Spontaneous Indian expression of appreciation!-Shaila

Thanks for choosing to do this story!!