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Unprecedented Dance and Disability Event Oct. 14 – 17

Leading artists coming to USF to perform, participate in workshops and use Merry Lynn Morris’ revolutionary Rolling Dance Chair; Chinese dance star Liu Yan makes her U.S. debut.


Hanna Harchakova and Ihar Kisialiou, World and European champions in wheelchair ballroom dancing, will appear at the Oct. 16 concert.

By Barbara Melendez
      USF News

TAMPA, Fla. (Oct. 12, 2015) – A truly unique and groundbreaking dance and disability event at USF promises to help redefine how the world understands and appreciates dance. Dancers of all abilities and those who love dance will encounter some of the most remarkable dancers in the field.


Harchakova and Kisialiou

Over four days from Oct. 14 to 17, VSA Florida’s “A New Definition of Dance: An International Mixed Ability Showcase and Educational Initiative,” presents performances and opportunities to learn from an international array of guest artists. This event honors the 40th anniversary of VSA (the statewide affiliated arts and disability organization is headquartered at the University of South Florida) and the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The main performance takes place Oct. 16, 8 p.m. in Theatre II, 3829 West Holly Drive, and tickets are available at the USF College of The Arts box office, $5 for adults and free to USF students, seniors and K-22 students. For ticket information, visit www.vsafl.org. There is a reception following the performance next door at the Contemporary Art Museum.

This mixed ability dance project, supported through a National Endowment for the Arts grant, brings together a diverse range of national and international performers to perform hip hop, ballroom, African, Chinese classical and modern dance originating from Canada, Belarus, California, New York, Beijing, Miami and Tampa.

Performers include Canadian break dancer Luca “Lazylegz” Patuelli, renowned Chinese classical dancer Liu Yan making her U.S. debut, West African drummer and dancer, Sidiki Conde, World and European Wheelchair Ballroom Dance champions, Hanna Harchakova and Ihar Kisialiou, and other accomplished artists (see sidebar).

The public can observe some of the classes, attend a performance at the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital and take part in a REVolutions Dance class. The Confucius Institute is hosting a special invitation-only reception for Liu. For schedule and details, click here.

Many of the artists will try out the Rolling Dance Chair, pioneered by Merry Lynn Morris, USF Dance program faculty member and academic advisor and the primary organizer of this event. Working collaboratively, Morris and Liu will develop a piece of choreography utilizing the prototype chair.

One of the participants, Sonsheree Giles, while not disabled herself, performed a duet on ‘So You Think You Can Dance,’ with Rodney Bell and has danced with AXIS Dance Company for 15 years.

A Groundbreaking Event

Motivated by the time she spent as a caregiver for her father as well as her love of dance and choreography, Morris has become world renowned for her research work in dance, disability and assistive technology and the development of the chair project which she began in 2005.

Morris explains that “A New Definition of Dance” is a groundbreaking event.

“When performers with disabilities are brought in as guest artists, it is usually only a single company or a sole individual,” she said. “Rarely will one see this many guest artists with disabilities collectively being brought together to perform and conduct workshops. Regionally, nationally and probably internationally, it is a pretty rare type of event, given all of the diverse layers which we encompass.

“Many technologies now used by the majority grew out of disability needs, such as elevators, ramps, different types of doorknobs, text to speech, closed captioning options, etc.,” Morris reminds us. “Disability actually is a pathway to innovation – it prompts and in fact, demands that we think more creatively about the design of our world as a diverse body of human beings.”

When Morris introduced the idea of such an event to multiple potential collaborators, she received positive responses and encouragement. VSA Florida and Morris applied for and received a National Endowment for the Arts grant in order to move forward. From there it was full steam ahead.

VSA, founded by Jean Kennedy Smith, is an international organization headquartered at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. with affiliates in many parts of the U.S. and abroad including Austria, Canada, Lithuania, Hong Kong, Nigeria, Jamaica, France and other nations.

“The organization’s goal is to make the arts accessible to people with disabilities and give them professional opportunities and training. It is a pretty interesting non-profit model and USF is fortunate to have such a well-established organization in residence,” said Morris.

Further support has come from USF Disability Services; the USF College of The Arts; the USF School of Theatre & Dance; the USF Contemporary Art Museum; the Confucius Institute; USF World; the USF Department of World Languages' Russian program and the USF Russian Club; the Chinese-American Association; the Gobioff Foundation; Lynn’s Rolling Dance Chair Project; National Seating and Mobility (NSM); Quantum Rehabilitation; Culture Builds Florida; REVolution Dance; A-Ability; and Tampa General Hospital. Quantum and NSM are partnering with Morris on the development of the Rolling Dance Chair.

Morris is very pleased about all the elements that came together to make this event possible. A lot of coordination was called for and cooperation has saved the day.

“While I have been responsible for many aspects of the planning, and at times it can certainly seem overwhelming, it has been wonderful to have synergistic collaborators, including Deb McCarthy from Disability Services and REVolutions Dance. Additionally, sponsors such as USF World from whom I applied for some funding, and the Confucius Institute have been very supportive in facilitating the needs of the project,” Morris said.

“We have a lot of integrative aspects across campus as well as linkages within the community such the VA Hospital, the University of Tampa and several public schools.”

There are multiple goals and layers involved in the showcase.

“There’s the educational aspect – informing our students and the community about disability and the arts through workshops and performances. And I’m coordinating the research aspect – using this opportunity to conduct my own research in dance, disability and assistive technology. And finally, we’re using the opportunity as a means of placing these artists in intersection and dialogue with each other to hopefully spawn more collaborative products in the future.”

One collaborative product is already trying to take shape.


Luca "Lazylegz" Patuelli  Photo by: Patrick Sansregret

“A student from engineering recently emailed me about having Luca Patuelli test his new crutch design,” Morris said. In the midst of everything, she’s working on connecting IsmetHandžić, Ph.D. with Patuelli. But then this fits in with Morris’ work which is in perfect synch with USF’s research focus. Her reputation as an innovative assistive technology researcher was established at USF with her Rolling Dance Chair Project. So it makes perfect sense that she designed and structured the schedule of events and various surrounding activities to support all the goals and layers.

“I wanted to enable each of the performers to take part in each other’s workshops, this way we can create a more informed dialogue around various teaching approaches and methods for dance and disability curriculum,” she said. “I intentionally sought out guest artists from different dance genres and with differing backgrounds in order to expand the context for understanding what is happening in the dance and disability field – and how we can continue to push the field forward in exciting and productive ways.”

Morris also had many others in mind.

“Although progress has been made with the ADA and initiatives by various disability organizations, prejudice still persists. In the planning of this event, we have tried to be attentive to disability issues with regard to the performance in particular – including options for audio description – for individuals with visual impairment, audio transcription – for individuals with hearing impairment, assistive listening devices and wheelchair accessibility, large print programs, etc. All too often, disability is still placed at the margins as the afterthought in the design of the physical and social world. There is still much work to be done in heightening attention to disability issues including design and accessibility on multiple levels.”

Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563



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