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Wheelchair dancers empowering kids with new artform

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With just a few days to go until the big dance recital, Charlene Curtiss is feeling like it it’s all coming together.

Even so, “I’ll be breathing more easily when we’re done,” she says.

Curtiss and her co-choreographer Joanne Petroff are working with five young dancers, two of whom are disabled and three of whom are non-disabled. The kids are getting ready to dance at the Kaleidoscope Dance concert at the Broadway Performance Hall in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood.

“He shines when he’s at dance class,” says Linda Puddy, mother of eight-year-old Zac Puddy Siggens. “On his dance day, he wakes up and asks if it’s dance day.”

Zac dances in his wheelchair, something Charlene Curtiss has mastered. Curtiss began her pioneering work more than 20 years ago, using the wheelchair as an expression of movement. Her mission, which became her dance partner Joanne Petroff’s mission too, was to bring together disabled and non-disabled dancers on stage.

Curtiss created a technique which redefined dance. It’s called “front end chair control.”

“Other people do it now, but it’s based on how a wheelchair can move front end off the ground,” says Curtiss.

At the rehearsals we attended, we watched Zac and Maxene Mitchell put that technique into practice. For Petroff and Curtiss, teaching dance to kids isn’t just about elevating the art form. It’s also about raising awareness.

“Attitudes about disabilities as a whole will change through the arts and integrated dance as an art form can do that. And it does it in a dramatic way,” says Curtiss.

Charlene Curtiss was just 17 years old when she sustained a spinal cord injury at a gymnastics meet. She became an attorney, but gave up her practice to pursue her passion in dance.

That’s when she teamed up with Joanne Petroff , who is a non-disabled dancer. Their dance company is called Light Motion. Their focus these days is on the kids, teaching them things they never imagined they could do or would do. They’re doing it now, and there’s no better feeling.

As for the spinning Zac does on stage:

“I like that too. But it kind of gives me a little headache,” he jokes. It also gives him joy.


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