June 25, 2003
Physically challenged performers, international ballet competitors team up for a first-of-its-kind show
By Lisa Uzzle Gates
Health and Research News Service
JACKSON, Miss.—When a 1990 car accident left Gregg Vowell paralyzed, he was afraid life would have much less to offer. Every day he realizes how wrong that idea was.
Vowell of Columbia is one of seven disabled dancers participating in “Medalists and Mississippians,” Saturday, June 28, at 7:30 p.m. at Thalia Mara Hall in Jackson.
The performance includes a special piece featuring six dancers in wheelchairs and one dancer who wears a prosthesis, all former Methodist Rehabilitation Center patients. They are joined by nine able-bodied dancers who are former competitors and medalists in past USA International Ballet Competitions.
“This is something I never thought I would be involved in, even when I was walking,” Vowell said.
Vowell had just completed seasons as a standout basketball and baseball player when he was injured. He was 15. “I had been involved in baseball and sports since I was a toddler. It was a dramatic hit. Then I began trying to fill that void,” he said.
He has filled the void with a variety of sports and activities. The primary one being archery. He travels extensively with the USA Disabled Archery Team, and will be going to Spain in September with that group. He also owns Vowell Strut and Rut Outdoors, a hunting specialty store.
But the latest, and most unexpected, addition to his list of activities is wheelchair ballet.
“When they first told me about it, I laughed out loud. I have watched ballet on television, but I had never been to a performance. I never imagined someone like me would be asked to do it,” he said. “But it’s an awesome opportunity. I think any opportunity to get people out there, get them involved and build that self confidence, is great.”
That response is not new to Ginny Boydston, theraputic recreation director for Methodist Rehab. She said the concept required a little selling in the beginning.
When Boydston first started recruiting dancers she only asked one thing of them – that they not immediately say no. She encouraged them to attend an organizational meeting and then make a decision. After that meeting some wanted to know more and others didn’t, but Boydston said they all came away with an understanding and appreciation of what the performance could be.
“It’s been a great experience,” she said. “It’s not just do this or do that. They are really learning the language of ballet.”
Peter LeBreton Merz, USA IBC Artistic Administrator, is the one teaching that language. This is not his first time to work with disabled dancers, having done similar projects with children from a rehabilitation center in Ohio. He said working with this group of adults has been especially rewarding.
“This is my first time to work with spinal cord injury survivors. It’s very freeing artistically. They are accustomed to overcoming adversity. They are strong willed and positive and willing to take risks--exactly what you want in a dancer,” Merz said.
Boydston said it’s been a great experience, and she hopes to see the concept continue on in some form after Saturday night’s performance.
“It was a great combination. Peter knows the dance, It’s amazing to watch him. I know the disability, the dancers know their chairs,” Boydston said. “We have all learned together and we’ve formed a great bond. We are really looking forward to the performance.”
The event is presented by the USA International Ballet Competition and the Mississippi Society for the Disabilities and is partially funded by the Gertrude C. Ford Foundation.