Martha Graham once said, “Dance is the hidden language of the soul.” Karen Peterson and Dancers bring this statement to life.
Peterson is at the helm of a mixed-abilities dance troupe in Miami, which features dancers from the South Florida area with and without disabilities. Five of the dancers are in wheelchairs.
“I came to Miami the early ’80s to dance,” Peterson said. “Then I discovered contact improvisation, which is a very democratic art form. I went out to the West Coast to take a workshop and saw dancers in wheelchairs expressing themselves through dance. It was amazing.”
Now in its 23rd year, Karen Peterson and Dancers continue to inspire audiences with poetically choreographed pieces performed by a mixed-abilities dance troupe. Mixed abilities consist of wheelchair and able-bodied dancers who equally share the dance and its creation.
“This gives individuals with or without special needs a chance to perform and learn about contemporary dance form,” Peterson said. “I have a junior company with ages 15 to 24 and senior company with ages 25 and older.”
Peterson brings her troupe to various community organizations to present dances and also works with students in the Miami-Dade area.
“This has exposed me to thousands of students in the Miami-Dade school system with disabilities,” Peterson said.
While the group has definitely had an impact on the local community, it also has a global appeal. Peterson and her troupe have performed all over the world, including Italy and Bosnia, and are planning a trip Belgrade this year.
“Last year I went to Sarajevo, and I was inspired to bring some of the choreography I saw there here. Two of the dancers I met in Sarajevo will be performing in Miami for the first time, so that’s very exciting. This troupe has also brought me a lot of opportunity to travel and perform.”
One of the most important travels the troupe has taken, though, is a journey of the heart. Bernadette Salgado, a dancer in Peterson’s troupe, started with the company a year ago.
“It’s definitely made me more aware of people with mixed abilities,” Salgado said. “As a dancer, it’s made me more aware of spatial awareness and moving around a wheelchair. I really enjoy dancing with my main partner, Adam Eckstat, who’s in a wheelchair.”
Salgado points out that creating choreography for the dancers can be challenging, but the end result is gratifying and beautiful to witness. Peterson uses a vocabulary that’s universally understood by all her students to organically build a dance and blend styles and movements together.
“When we’re creating choreography for wheelchairs, the weight and speed of the wheels is a big factor,” Salgado explained. “Balance is also important. I do a lot of movements where I’m balancing on the wheelchair. The choreography is a nice collaboration.”
For people seeing Karen Peterson and Dancers for the first time, Salgado said the reaction is subjective.
“For some people, it’s a show. For others, it’s pure beauty, and you have some people that are just intrigued. It’s very different for each individual,” she said. “Society can really learn and understand from watching our troupe that people with mixed abilities can do much more than they ever imagined.”
Months of work go into each dance. Their latest number, “Classical Music Meets Contemporary Dance,” is set to a live classical quartet. Peterson has rehearsals every Saturday, and individual dancers can practice more with their partners on their own time.
Member Rayna Orsini said she’s learned much more than just dance from the troupe.
“I always wanted to work with special-needs people,” Orsini said. “My uncle has Down syndrome, and when he was born, they told our family he wouldn’t live past age 9. He’s now 63 and lives in Ohio, and I love to see him every chance I get. He participates in special-needs workshops, and I wanted to show others that special-needs people can do anything they set their minds to. There are no limits.”
Orsini, who is trained in hip-hop, modern and jazz, has been dancing since age 4.