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Challenging perceptions of the body

A performance involving disabled and able-bodied performers sets out to confront stereotypes in dance.

By JANE MADDEN WELCH
Published February 27, 2004

Kevin LaFlam's accomplishments include skydiving, waterskiing, horseback riding, snowmobiling, scuba diving and parasailing.

What's even more impressive is that LaFlam is in a wheelchair.

Now, the Palm Harbor resident is ready to add another accomplishment to his list: dancing.

LaFlam is a member of Asher Dance Eclectic, one of the few performance groups in the country that integrates disabled dancers with the able-bodied.

Started in 1999 by Elizabeth Edelson, the nonprofit Asher Dance Eclectic is part of MAD (Music, Acting, Dance) Theatre of Tampa.

"We want to challenge the preconceptions about what dance is," Edelson said.

Edelson, 40, is the artistic director of Breaking the Mold, a dance performance on stage this weekend at Plant High School in Tampa. The purpose of the program is to confront the existing stereotype in dance, one that is obsessed with "perfect" bodies, Edelson said.

LaFlam had that "perfect" body until 1987. He was on active duty in the U.S. Navy in Norfolk, Va., when that changed. Driving home one night from visiting his girlfriend, LaFlam fell asleep at the wheel, hit a cement barrier, flipped the car and broke his neck. He was 21.

Technically, Kevin is a quadriplegic. His legs are paralyzed, and he has limited use of his arms. With no movement in his fingers, he propels his wheelchair with his wrists.

But he refused to let the accident stop him from getting on with his life. He married his girlfriend, and in 1991, they moved to Palm Harbor.

In addition to his athletic accomplishments, LaFlam received a bachelor's degree in science, worked in an elementary school and entered his watercolors in art shows. He drives a customized minivan.

"Being a quad affects everyone differently," LaFlam said. "I know some people that never get over it."

LaFlam met fellow "quad" Dwayne Scheuneman of Oldsmar in a Wal-Mart last fall. Scheuneman has been with Asher Dance for two years. He invited LaFlam to join the dance group.

"I'm always looking for something new to do," LaFlam said. He told Scheuneman he would give it a try.

At a dance studio in Tampa last weekend, LaFlam waited for his cue to wheel himself onstage. Edelson is directing the dancers of Breaking the Mold at Evention Show Productions, a professional entertainment company that donated its studio space for rehearsals.

The program features five pieces, each choreographed for interaction with members in wheelchairs and able-bodied dancers. The music is composed of contemporary stylings, with some original compositions for the production.

LaFlam, Scheuneman and Daniel McKenna are the male wheelchair dancers in a piece called Discovery Channel. The men deftly roll themselves around the stage, maneuvering precisely and using arm motions to interact with able-bodied female dancers as they leap and twirl in constant motion, creating a strong visual image.

"It's a lot more mental work than I thought," McKenna said. "You really have to concentrate."

McKenna, 40, of Clearwater is a paraplegic resulting from gunshot wounds suffered as a victim of a home invasion crime in 1991.

LaFlam agrees with McKenna about the challenges of wheelchair dancing.

"You have to be in a certain place at just the right time because the other dancers are relying on you," he said.

LaFlam also takes Edelson's wheelchair dance technique class she teaches at Florida Arts School.

Edelson, who has a degree in dance therapy, said she created Asher Dance specifically for the wheelchair disabled. She recruits dancers from her class when she "sees something special in the student," she said.

Michele Caputo of Dunedin, 46, is one of the few wheelchair dancers with prior professional dance experience. She calls dance a great form of expression.

Caputo was 24 when her car skidded off the road on a wet night in 1981 and she broke her neck.

"They told me after the accident my choices were to learn computers or wheelchair basketball," she said. "I told them I'm going to find a way to dance again."

As part of the program, members of Asher Dance will answer questions from the audience after each performance. Edelson said that there are no wrong questions. The dancers are willing to talk about their experiences and the things that make dancing a particular challenge for people with disabilities.

Mark Ruane, narrator of Breaking the Mold, said, "Hopefully, the audience will come to see there is a lot of common ground between people with physical differences."

IF YOU GO

WHAT: Breaking the Mold

WHEN: 8 p.m. today and Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday

WHERE: Plant High School, 2415 S Himes Ave., Tampa

TICKETS: $15, $14 for seniors/students with ID/children 12 and under. Group discounts for parties of 10 or more are $12. Tickets may be purchased by phone 813 884-6500 or by credit card at www.madtheatre.com

[Last modified February 27, 2004, 01:31:31]


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