“Cinq, six, sept, huit,” counts one of the dancers.
Step and step, hand over hand, repeat and turn to the front.
Propeller Dance Company’s professional dancers are practicing the sequence across the floor as I enter the small, black studio space on the second floor of the Great Canadian Theatre Company in Ottawa.
I’m greeted by half a dozen smiling faces.
A service dog—it’s clear from his calm demeanor and red jacket—is sleeping soundly in the corner, completely unaffected by the creative chaos. His name is Cyrus and he’s here because Propeller Dance is an integrated dance company that believes dancing is for everyone, regardless of mental or physical disability.
Shara Weaver, the company’s 42-year-old co-director and choreographer, moves the rehearsal along. The first thing I notice about her is how the bright pink streak in her hair matches the colour of her t-shirt.
“I’d like you to work on an improvisation with these scarves,” Weaver prompts, passing out white pieces of fabric.
“I love improv,” company dancer Moni Hoffman, 24, tells me later, “because it’s my own natural movements and then we put that into the dance. It gives me ideas.”
She’s the youngest performer in the company and an extremely passionate dancer. She wears a powder pink top with matching earrings. Her electronic wheelchair has hints of pink as well.
“It’s just always been a part of who I am,” she says. “I guess it’s a way of expressing myself, a way of getting out what’s otherwise bothering me.”
She beams when she talks about the company.
“It’s like my second family, really. They are a great group of people. It’s like coming home. Home away from home,” she laughs.
“If you can breathe, you can dance.”
That’s the company’s motto – it’s about inclusivity, diversity and creativity.
Nearly one in 10 working-age Canadians has a disability, according to the 2012 Canadian Survey on Disability by Statistics Canada and inclusion is a major issue.
It can be extremely difficult for people with disabilities to find social and physical outlets that suit their needs, due to everything from building accessibility to stigma.
Propeller Dance strives to remove boundaries and create a creative space for all through professional performances, recreational dance classes and educational outreach.
“We really don’t focus on diagnosis,” Weaver says later, sitting outside the studio.
“There are people in the company that I don’t know what their diagnoses are and I’ve danced with them for 15 years because when you work with people based on their diagnosis, you’re really limiting getting to know them as an artist.
“It’s easy to make assumptions about what they can and cannot do. It’s always more helpful to get to know people as people first.”
During rehearsal, she invites everyone into a circle to share their improv inspirations. “What was your story?” she asks.
“Preparing to go out for the evening and then going out to the dance and finding a partner,” says 54-year-old Liz Winkelaar.
Winkelaar, the oldest member of the company, has been with the group for nearly nine years. Her eyes are expressive behind colourful thick rim glasses. Her hair might be grey, but her energy is vibrant, especially when she’s talking about dancing with the company.
“The troubles or the difficulties that come with having a disability kind of disappear, the main one is being judged. Once that disappears, the other ones don’t seem so terrible, like discomfort in your body or fatigue, that kind of thing,” she says.
We chat inside the studio, so she can watch the others rehearse some new moves.
Winkelaar was working on a masters degree at Carleton University when she saw a poster for Weaver’s class.
She says she attended a class and loved it. Before long she was in the company.
Winkelaar says she felt like she was contributing to the disability rights movement with her academic work, but at Propeller Dance, she feels like she is living the movement every day.
“Not that many people read your papers but lots of people come to see a show and it breaks down that awkwardness so you can have a conversation,” she says. “The audience doesn’t see us as people to feel sorry for. The audience sees us as people who have artistic souls who are putting it out there and it makes a big difference.
“They are so excited at the end of a show. I think they feel like they’re part of the change. It may be the first time they’ve seen somebody in a wheelchair performing on stage. Somehow the spirit of that moves the audience and you can feel it—it’s palpable.”