Dancing beyond boundaries

Nicole Hennessy

Company gives rhythm to all

The Verlezza Dance Company includes 10 professional and student dancers, some of whom are pictured above, who work with performers who have disabilities. Inclusion is the idea behind the company, whose studio is in Shaker Heights. Verlezza Dance Company w

Credit: DKS Editors

The sign above the door reads worship center, but nobody inside the room is worshiping – they are dancing.

Verlezza Dance Company offers the experience of dance to anyone.

“Our message is one of inclusion,” said Sabatino Verlezza, artistic director of Verlezza Dance. “Last year we had a dancer who was 92.”

The studio, nestled in the upstairs of a Unitarian church in Shaker Heights, contains a company of 10 professional and student dancers, all interested in the idea of working with performers who have disabilities.

“The Unitarian church embraces everyone,” Verlezza said. “We rent the space, and they open their arms to our work.”

The Verlezzas opened the studio in 2003 after having similar projects in New York beginning in 1989. Each project they created enveloped their idea of inclusion.

“Art should not be elitist,” Verlezza said. “Art should embrace the whole human potential from professionals to the community. When I say the community, I mean the amateur.”

Preparing for their performance at Kent State on Wednesday, the company has been working with two dancers in wheelchairs, visually impaired dancers, eight senior adults andFriedrich, who has cerebral palsy and came all the way from Missouri to participate in the event.

As they stretch to a drumbeat and chanted instructions, Friedrich happily stretches along with them.

“I like to do what everybody else does,” she said with a smile. “I was born disabled to inspire people. I couldn’t move until I found dance.”

Verlezza Dance will be performing at the E. Stump Turner Theatre for the third consecutive year.

“Kent has been extremely accepting of our work,” Verlezza said.

Included in Verlezza’s company are his wife, Barbara, an assistant professor at Kent, their son Sabatino Alexander and their assistant artistic director and principal dancer, Tracy Pattison, who also has a pilates studio in the basement of the church.

Pattison describes techniques they use with various dancers such as audio description, sign language, understanding rhythm through vibration, touching them, stomping on the floor or having a caregiver physically move them through space.

Filling an entire wall is an image of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man,” which famously shows the ideal proportions of man. This seems to be a paradox in a studio where ideals are disregarded.

Pattison works with 62- to 92-year-old members of the Cuyahoga County Board of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities along with her colleagues and other disabled dancers.

“I forget that people think (dancing with a disability) is unique, but at the same time I’m glad people are inspired by it,” Pattison said. “I love that they consider themselves dancers when they come to the studio.”

Pattison said she teaches by looking for what can work instead of what does not, such as having a sit-down dancer’s arms mimic a stand-up dancer’s feet.

“It opened up my world of possibilities,” Pattison said. “It didn’t let me accept physical disabilities – other people’s or my own.”

Many people work together to achieve Verlezzas message of inclusion.

Sabatino Alexander, the Verlezza’s son, dances and teaches with the company he has been a part of since he was a child.

He says he can appreciate the struggle that disabled dancers encounter.

“I’ve grown up with it for so long,” Alexander said. “From my perception, I don’t notice it. I don’t feel like I’m doing any great deed.”

Practicing three to four times a week, the dancers prepare to bring their performance to Kent. The free event is open to the public on a first-come, first-serve basis, and the 500 seats of the E. Turner Stump Theatre have been known to fill up for Verlezza’s performances of the past.

Verlezza’s “Enter the Dance” performance will start at 7 p.m. on Wednesday.

“People say, ‘That was amazing. I can’t believe you can put that together,'” Alexander said. “We say, ‘Well, that’s what we do.'”

Contact performing arts reporter Nicole Hennessy at [email protected]

Performance Info

What: Verlezza Dance – “Enter the Dance”

When: 7 p.m. Wednesday

Where: E. Turner Stump Theatre