By Steve Sucato
It takes a special person to one day pick up and move to another country and culture to pursue a career in a field they know little about. The Dancing Wheels Company’s Celina Speck is one such person.
The 23-year-old from Würenlos, Switzerland, a suburb of Zürich, says before she decided to come to Cleveland, a place she had never been, she hadn’t heard much about physically integrated dance. “I knew it existed but not that there were professional physically-integrated dance companies (uniting the talents of dancers both with and without disabilities).”
What she did know is that for her required internship to earn a degree in dance from the University of the Arts in Zürich, she wanted an international experience in a different culture than the one she grew up in. Her choice of Cleveland, Ohio’s The Dancing Wheels Company she says was a bit of kismet.
I just happened upon an advertisement for the company online and there was something about Dancing Wheels that was different and interesting,” says Speck.
Speck contacted President/Founding Artistic Director Mary Verdi-Fletcher who agreed to her internship with the company that began in June of 2018.
Speck’s eventual road to Dancing Wheels began at age 6 out of a personal desire to dance she says.
“I really didn’t have a family member that was directly involved in the arts,” says Speck. “My parents were both volleyball players and didn’t push me toward the arts. I found out in my late teens that my grandmother however was a dancer at the School of The Royal Danish Ballet in Denmark.”
At 13, Speck says she out-grew her local training in Würenlos and moved to studying classical ballet, contemporary, modern and character dance at Zürich’s School of the Opera Zürich. There she danced works by Itzik Galili, Barak Marshall, Michael Schumacher, Ihsam Rustem and Adrijana Danchevska. That training led to her the University of the Arts in Zürich for college before coming to Dancing Wheels. Speck says she has become a kind of role model for younger dancers at the University of the Arts in that she represents an alternative career path to just pursuing a traditional career path with dance companies in Europe.
In first working with Dancing Wheels, Speck admits to a bit of trepidation in navigating how to move with dancers in wheelchairs. “I wanted to be very respectful of everyone in the company,” she says. Fellow company member Tanya Ewell, a dancer in a wheelchair, made Speck feel at ease in her approach to dancing with non-stand-up dancers. “I felt like I needed that comforting from her first to know I can go so much further in physically connecting with dancers in wheelchairs and in finding new ways to translate movement that wouldn’t necessarily be possible with a stand-up dancer,” says Speck. “It’s a new approach [for me] of seeing the body and its ability and not a person’s disability as being a barrier, but rather as another way to connect to them through movement.”
Speck has subsequently finished her internship and gotten her BA degree in Contemporary Dance from the University of the Arts in Zürich.
Now a full-time Dancing Wheels company member, Speck also teaches outreach classes for the organization. She has completed Level 1 Certification Dancing Wheels’ Physically Integrated Dance Teacher Training and will be taking Level 2 Certification as it becomes available.
Speck says she would love to take what she has learned about inclusivity and physically integrated dance back to Switzerland and pass it along to the dance community there. “I don’t ever want to stand still in my career,” she says. “In the field of physically integrated dance there is so much potential for me to grow as an artist and educator and spread the word of inclusivity.”
As a performer, Speck has made her presence known in a short time with Dancing Wheels’ audiences and dance critics alike with thoughtful, powerful and entertaining performances in works such as Catherine Meredith’s “Babes in Toyland,” Marc Brew’s “Od:yssey” and Laurel Lawson’s “the tenderness of things lost and found”.
“I feel like what has brought me to this point as a dancer is to rely on the challenges of my body and always find an organic way to have movement work for me,” says Speck. “I know what I am capable of and I am not scared to challenge myself. I am eager to learn new movement and find out what is possible in dance.”
Beyond being a top-notch performer with Dancing Wheels, Speck has become a part of a new generation of dancers/teachers that has embraced inclusivity in dance and is helping to move the dance world in that direction. From programs and performances for and with those with physical, mental and emotional challenges by professional dance companies such as Dancing Wheels and at Universities, the future of dance has never looked more diverse, inclusive and brighter.
Steve Sucato is a former dancer turned arts writer/critic. He is Chairman Emeritus of the Dance Critics Association and Associate Editor of ExploreDance.com.