A dance therapist forms a troupe in which dancers who use wheelchairs or leg braces perform alongside those with full use of their legs.
By BABITA PERSAUD
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 14, 2001
In high school, Melissa Hulse wanted to be a drama queen, the star in a school play. But she always seemed to get pushed backstage.
Melissa, pull the curtains.
Melissa, work the lights.
Never, Melissa, take center stage, said the 25-year-old with brown eyes and steel braces on her legs. "I want to be in commercials, work in a recording studio, deejay," she said.
And she wants to dance, despite leg muscles weakened by a congenital deformity called arthrogryposis.
Asher Dance Eclectic, a new dance company in Tampa, lets her and others with disabilities shine. The company includes people like 31-year-old Marla Scaglione, who used to dance before her right foot was crushed in a car accident. "It feels wonderful to dance again," Scaglione said.
Or David Gondreau, a 39-year-old systems analyst for TECO, a local actor and a quadriplegic who admits dancing is "way beyond my comfort zone" but is willing to give it a shot.
It includes Mary Bellone, who has cerebral palsy and idolizes Mariah Carey. At Bloomingdale High School, the 18-year-old has auditioned many times for plays but has been told she doesn't speak loudly enough.
Bellone isn't bothered; she is aiming higher. "Movies and television," she said. "The microphone is right above your head, and I know I can talk loud enough to get it in there."
Asher Dance includes dancers without disabilities, such as Jessica Garner, a University of South Florida architectural engineering student who has danced all her life and "wanted to be a part of something different," she said.
Next weekend, Asher Dance debuts with three performances at James Monroe Middle School in South Tampa.
Getting to that point wasn't easy.
The troupe's founder, Elizabeth Edelson, had a hard time recruiting members.
A dance therapist for 14 years, she was inspired by a performance she saw 10 years ago in Atlanta. On stage were the Dancing Wheels, started in 1980 as part of the Cleveland Ballet by Mary Verdi-Fletcher, who has spina bifida and once said, "Oftentimes, the biggest disability is your mindset."
"I was completely in awe," Edelson said. "The performance was beautiful. I had worked with people in wheelchairs in rehab rooms. But how wonderful (for them) to be on stage, to give a performance," she said.
She put it in the back of her mind, thinking "One day, I'm going to start something like this." Last summer, after starting another dance troupe, she did. She called people she knew, called almost every agency that helps the disabled in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, talked to support groups.
Everybody thought it was a great idea. But there were plenty of obstacles -- and excuses. For the disabled, logistics with caregivers and transportation had to be worked out. For those without disabilities, recruitment was just as difficult. Some showed up and then quit. Some couldn't handle working with disabled people.
"I just thought everyone would all flock," said Edelson.
One group she spoke to is co-organized by Bob Theisen, who has multiple sclerosis. Edelson dove into her spiel.
Jokingly, the group said, "How about you, Bob?"
Now he is dancing. He was at a rehearsal last week at the MacDonald Training Center on Cypress Street. He, in a wheelchair, was accompanied by two dancers. One held his hand and dipped, her leg pointing straight into the air.
In a mermaid scene, all the dancers' legs are covered with fins. Can you tell which ones are disabled? Edelson asked.
She also has those in wheelchairs perform a tap-dance number. Metal toe taps usually on the underside of shoes are worn on the fingers like castanets.
It is a trick many have already learned. "Whatever I can't do with my legs, I make up for with my arms," Hulse said.
The troupe hopes to give two performance a year.
The calls have started to come in, one from a woman with spina bifida, Edelson said.
"She wants to be in the next performance."
If you go
WHAT: Asher Dance Eclectic
WHEN: 8 p.m. April 20-21; 2 p.m. April 22
WHERE: James Monroe Middle School, 4710 Montgomery Ave.
CALL: (813) 786-6291