Special Guest Blog by Lea Marshall
A dancer glides across the floor in a long arc, arms outstretched, ending in a hypnotic spin. The audience breathes with her, delighting in her skill, grace, strength, and the remarkable invention that has given her so much freedom of movement. She dances in a wheelchair – a wheelchair whose wheels are hidden, that moves in all directions, and can pirouette.
The dancer controls the wheelchair, not with her arms and hands, but through the dips and twists of her body. Her movements are registered by a smartphone that she wears which communicates wirelessly with the chair. This is the Rolling Dance Chair, invented by Merry Lynn Morris, Assistant Program Director for Dance at the University of South Florida.
In the five minute video below Merry Lynn Morris explains how her work with dancers with disabilities inspired her to invent the Rolling Dance Chair.
Morris looks like a ballet dancer: poised, long and lean. And indeed, she trained as a ballet dancer throughout childhood and early adulthood in south Florida. But her work in dance now focuses on helping people with disabilities find their way into the studio and onto the stage through education and assistive technology. In addition to her work at University of South Florida, Morris teaches and choreographs physically integrated dance, expanding the traditional conception of who dancers are and can be by including dancers with and without disabilities.
Discovering the Intersection of Dance and Disability
Morris began studying dance when she was three years old, but as she grew up, she kept reaching beyond the traditional confines of her training. “I wanted to create dances, make things, and put them together differently. When I was seven or eight, my friends and I danced on skates, and used props, like the handles of a car.”
She went on to earn an MFA in Dance from Florida State University, where she was especially drawn to classes in choreography and improvisation.
Alongside her dancing life, Morris was serving as a caregiver for 21 years for her father who was disabled in a car accident. Around 2001, these two worlds intersected. Morris saw a performance in Tampa of Dancing Wheels, a physically integrated dance company based in Cleveland, Ohio.
“Up until that point, I didn’t know that there were professional companies with dancers with disabilities. When I saw their performance, it was transformative, because it really did connect my worlds.”
At that performance, Morris picked up contact information for a woman who taught physically integrated dance classes and went to observe a class with her students. “That’s when I got hooked.” She began working with disabled dancers and exploring physically integrated choreography.
Improving the Available Technology
Soon Morris started thinking about ways to improve the technology available to disabled dancers, drawing on her personal experience with her father’s disability. Long before she ever imagined a dancing chair, Morris credits working with her highly imaginative mother, a visual artist, “who always had ideas about how to make my dad’s life better by improving his assistive devices.”
The two of them came up with a prototype for the Dance Chair from her dad’s wheelchair. “We attached wooden dowels to the wheels with strings, and then we attached the strings to my wrists. When I moved my hands, the dowels would move the wheelchair, almost like a marionette, and it looked invisible because you wouldn’t see the strings. It was an interesting first attempt. We were trying to figure out how a wheelchair could respond to the whole body’s movement, and free the hands from the wheels.”
Morris noticed that most of the disabled dancers she was working with had a fair amount of upper body expressiveness, but they could not use it in performances because they needed to use their hands to move their chairs by pushing the wheels or a joystick. She decided to create a wheelchair that would free the dancer’s hands and arms.
Through grants and prize funding, Morris has developed two prototypes of a much more agile wheelchair with collaborators – initially, students and faculty in the College of Engineering, and now with companies in Florida and California.
Core components of the design include omnidirectional wheels, and hands free/wireless control via motion sensors in the seat and a smartphone worn by the user (or controlled by someone else, say, a partner in the dance). Morris and collaborators hold several patents on the existing prototypes, with more pending. Morris is currently working on her PhD at Texas Women’s University, and her dissertation research involves exploration of the chair’s potential with disabled dancers. The chairs are ripe for marketability studies by top wheelchair companies.
“I have had dancers and non-dancers test and explore with it,” she says. “I am waiting to debut the chair in a more developed piece of choreography. I need time to do that and the dancer or dancers. And when I have the second chair, I’d love to see what will happen when two dancers using these chairs perform a duet.”
Axis Dance Company is an internationally renowned integrated dance company in Oakland, CA. http://www.axisdance.org/
Phamaly Theatre Company produces professional scale plays and musicals year-round throughout the Denver Metro region, cast entirely of performers with disabilities across the spectrum (physical, cognitive, and emotional). http://www.phamaly.org/
Stopgap Dance Company in the UK creates exhilarating dance productions for national and international touring. They employ disabled and non-disabled artists who find innovative ways to collaborate. http://stopgapdance.com/
VSA (Very Special Arts), an affiliate of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., is an international organization offering a variety of opportunities and resources for artists – of all disciplines – who have disabilities. http://education.kennedy-center.org//education/vsa/
The National Arts and Disability Center (NADC) promotes the full inclusion of audiences and artists with disabilities into all facets of the arts community. A project of the University of California at Los Angeles, the NADC website offers free resource directories and other information. www.semel.ucla.edu/nadc
DanceAbility of the Joint Forces Dance Company focuses on dance for people both with and without disabilities. The DanceAbility site at www.danceability.com offers performance videos, articles and interviews, and links to other resources for dancers with disabilities and mixed-ability dance.
About Lea Marshall
Lea Marshall is the Associate Chair of the Department of Dance & Choreography at Virginia Commonwealth University, and a dance writer and critic, in addition to a published poet. She has written for national dance publications, including Dance Magazine and Dance Teacher magazine, for over ten years. She also serves as a freelance dance critic for Richmond’s Style Weekly newsmagazine.
She has an MFA in Creative Writing – Poetry from Virginia Commonwealth University, and her creative work has been published in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Diode Poetry Journal, Broad Street Magazine, and elsewhere. She has a chapbook forthcoming from Dancing Girl Press this winter.