Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Spotlight: Rodney Bell, paraplegic dancer

A photo of Rodney Bell with partner Sonsherée Giles.  Bell is in his wheelchair lying sideways on the ground, so that the flat plane of the chair’s wheels are parallel to the ground.  Giles is perched with her stomach on the wheel facing upwards, her arms and legs outstretched.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Rodney Bell, shown above with partner Sonsherée Giles, is paralyzed from the waist down.  But he is also an award-winning dancer, performing on such shows as So You Think You Can Dance and helping bring awareness to "physically integrated dance," a format where both able-bodied dancers and those with differing abilities perform together.

Bell was paralyzed when he was twenty years old, after a motorcycle accident in 1990.  Originally from Te Kuiti, New Zealand, he is of Maori descent and represented New Zealand on its Paralympic basketball team from 1999 to 2006.  He also danced with and choreographed works for Touch Compass Dance Company, New Zealand’s first mixed-ability dance company.  Later he joined California-based AXIS Dance Company, a contemporary company that had seven regular dancers in 2009, four of whom used wheelchairs and one of whom had prosthetic feet.

Bell met choreographer Alex Ketley in 2007 at an AXIS choreographic residency at Florida State University.  Ketley composed a routine for Bell and partner Sonsherée Giles, titled To Color Me Different, which Bell performed using his eighteen pound titanium wheelchair.  It was Ketley's first work for a dancer with different abilities.  In 2009, Bell and Giles won a celebrated Isadora Duncan Dance Award (or "Izzie") for best Ensemble Performance for their work in the piece.

Bell has said that he dances for all the communities he represents: disability culture, yes, but also dance culture and Maori culture as well.  Though he performs with a wheelchair, he will sometimes leave it during a dance, using his upper-body strength to move himself across the floor or lifting the chair up as part of a pose.  Not solely a performer, he has also taught mixed ability dance to both able-bodied dancers and those with differing abilities.  With AXIS dance company, he is featured in David Levitt Waxman's short documentary The Art of Movement, which can be viewed in its entirety (with captions!) on Youtube.

You can learn more about Rodney Bell and physically integrated dance in these articles from the Los Angeles Times, SF Weekly, SF Gate, Golden Gate Xpress,, New Mobility, and the National Endowment for the Arts.  For more videos, check out AXIS's Youtube channel.

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