Wheelchair troupe helps performers with disabilities gain self-esteem and grace, even as they get their first paid gig – and dream of taking a star turn on television
The music swelled as Lisa Roy spun in circles across the stage, through the spotlight, first in one direction and then the other, in perfect synch with an ethereal piece called “Promise to Embrace Tranquility.’’
Radiant in pink-sequined chiffon and white ballet slippers, the 31-year-old was enjoying one of the most perfect moments of her life. With face to the heavens and spirit aflame, she and the electric wheelchair she has been confined to since birth had truly become one. “It’s like I can fly like a bird,’’ Roy had said before taking the stage last week at the DoubleTree Guest Suites hotel in Waltham.
Roy and her fellow performers, Allison Hill, 28, and Heather March, 26, along with technical crew chief Alan Chefitz, 25, are clients of Toward Independent Living and Learning Inc., a nonprofit rehabilitation center in Dedham that serves more than 1,000 area adults with disabilities.
But at last week’s annual meeting of Greater Waltham ARC, they took the stage as members of Dancing with Wheels, in their first paid gig since the troupe formed in 2006.
After perfecting and showcasing their abilities before audiences at senior centers and nursing homes, Hill said, she knew the group was ready to move up. Soon they hope to work with a professional choreographer to land a dream spot – television’s “Dancing with the Stars’’ showcase.
Dancing, they emphasized, makes them equal with everyone else.
“Now we believe we can do it,’’ said Hill, who lives with her fellow performers in a Bedford group home. “It feels really good and helps us to know that we have meaning.’’
“Amen,’’ said Chefitz, who has found his niche as the group’s videographer and tech crew.
Dancing with Wheels was founded by Pepperell resident Doug Townsend, site manager at the Dedham day center known as TILL, and former staff member Luis Salas of Dracut. Although Salas no longer works at the center, he said he believes so deeply in the program he asked to participate in the dance routines on his own time.
“At first we just got everyone in a circle, and then we quickly knew we had something,’’ Salas said.
Dancing either solo or with the assistance of able-bodied partners, troupe members have gained confidence, grace, and self-esteem while they have fun.
“The purpose and the meaning are the same as when we began,’’ Townsend said. “Just now the stage is bigger.’’
For many families, TILL picks up where the education system leaves off, since the disabled may legally remain in public schools only until age 22.
“So many fall by the wayside after that,’’ said Townsend. “But here, they have us. And what’s really electrifying is the spirituality that is attached to this dance concept.’’
Performances by Roy and friends have inspired hundreds of people all over New England while raising $2,800 for a scholarship for a Billerica High School student who has disabilities.
Group members are preparing a video of their performances that they plan to send to composer Tim Janis, in hopes the international star will take them under his wing as part of his philanthropic project Music with a Mission.
They also plan to hire a choreographer to draw up some new routines, they said.
If celebrities and their partners can learn to perfect tough maneuvers, Townsend mused, why not the Dedham center’s clients?
“The good news,’’ said Dafna Krouk-Gordon, who founded TILL in 1980, “is that we have no idea how far it will go.’’
As the head of the nonprofit agency, Krouk-Gordon said, her life’s work has been to search for what her clients do best, not tell them what they can’t do. She said she’s gratified that their families trust the staff enough to help them reach for it.
For Patricia and Dick Roy of Maynard, Lisa’s parents, what matters is that their daughter is happy. She never wants rehearsals to end and goes over the routines in her head in her room. They arrived early at the Oct. 5 performance for Greater Waltham ARC to offer support for her big moment.
“She’s more excited than I’ve ever seen her,’’ Patricia Roy said. “It’s great for self-esteem and makes her feel special.’’
Roz Rubin is chief executive officer of Greater Waltham ARC, which serves people with developmental disabilities and their families. She was thrilled that Dancing with Wheels agreed to entertain at her agency’s annual meeting.
“I wanted to showcase that the arts are for everyone,’’ Rubin said. “And then to have someone with challenges perform? Well, that’s even more inspiring.’’
Before the performance, TILL case manager Rhonda Pattelena worked to keep Hill calm and loose by rhythmically massaging her arms.
She said she is moved by her clients’ commitment to the dance routines and the freedom they feel while they are performing.
“The expressions on their faces just bring tears to your eyes,’’ Pattelena said. “They give me a lot of motivation.’’
Before taking the stage, the members of Dancing with Wheels gathered in a small conference room to go over last-minute instructions.
Townsend was working with March, elegant in sparkling, deep purple, whom he would later partner in “Promise to Forgive.’’
“Let’s go over hand posture,’’ he said, lifting her arm slightly. “Like this.’’
She beamed as Townsend kneeled and spun her around and around: “Eye contact, please?’’
“Beautiful,’’ he said, as she complied.
Jitters disappeared when the performance began and one dancer after another took the stage. Hill laughed joyfully as she finished her piece with Salas in a stream of flourishing figure eights and sweeping, smooth circles.
“So, how do you like it?’’ Townsend asked the audience, to enthusiastic applause.
After five pieces, it was over. Chefitz turned off the video camera. The lights came on. And the audience stood to leave.
Performers clutched bouquets of pink carnations and baby’s breath, happily rehashing the event with their families and friends.
Krouk-Gordon said that, over time, the public has begun to accept people with disabilities as integral to the world landscape. “They are part of the fabric of the community,’’ she said.
As she prepared to perform, Hill summed up her experience with the troupe in a different way.
“I never danced before this,’’ she said.
By Michele Morgan Bolton, Globe Correspondent