Kent State English and Dance Double Major Graduates Today; Shares Her Incredible Experience with Dancing Wheels
Angelina DiFranco started dancing when she was just three years old and wearing a diaper under her leotard.
“I was terrified of my dance teacher,” DiFranco joked. "No, she's great."
She got her start at Starship Dance Studio in Guilford, Connecticut, about 90 miles from Lincoln Center in New York City. She knew she wanted to be a professional dancer when she got ‘en pointe’ at 10 years old.
Her lifelong dream came true in September of 2022 when she got to perform at Lincoln Center’s Big Umbrella Festival. For DiFranco, a graduating senior honors student who double-majored in Dance BFA and English at Kent State University, this was a “full-circle” moment. She remembers the excitement of attending holiday performances and seeing professional dancers at Lincoln Center with her family as a kid. Now, she was performing in front of much of her family there.
Joining Dancing Wheels and Performing at Big Umbrella Festival
DiFranco was selected as an apprentice in the Dancing Wheels Company, based in Cleveland, the nation’s first physically integrated company founded in 1980 by Mary Verdi-Fletcher, the first professional wheelchair dancer in the United States. The company has been committed to ensuring equal access to dance for people with disabilities, revolutionizing ideas of dance and what it means to be a dancer. Dancing Wheels’ inspirational objective has touched over 5.5 million people, and the company continues to tour both nationally and internationally to perform for 30,000-50,000 people annually.
In addition to her schoolwork and a writing internship (in the College of Arts and Sciences at Kent State) DiFranco began putting in the work to prepare for her upcoming performances, including the Big Umbrella Festival.
Big Umbrella was launched in 2018 to make performances and arts accessible for everyone, including kids with developmental disabilities and autism.
“Disabled activists have always said that access to the arts is a right, not a privilege,” Verdi-Fletcher said. “What has been done at Lincoln Center has opened the arts and provided access for all- as patrons, as artists- and it really is proof that the possibilities are endless.”
At the Big Umbrella Festival, the Dancing Wheels Company performed the piece ‘Incommunicado’ which was choreographed by one of DiFranco’s favorite professors in the School of Theatre and Dance at Kent State, Catherine Meredith, who has worked with Dancing Wheels for ten years.
“Incommunicado revolves around miscommunication, particularly lack of access to communication for people with disabilities,” DiFranco said.
“That was my first professional performance; my first performance with the company; and my first performance at Lincoln Center,” DiFranco said. “Are you kidding me? It felt really special. I think it feels like a privilege, like sometimes it doesn't really seem real. My job is what I love.”
DiFranco said she also had a lot of fun getting to take part in the interactive and accessible art pieces featured at the festival.
“It was the most exciting experience of my life,” DiFranco said. “To be performing at a festival whose entire mission is access and opening performance spaces, it was really special because I'm thinking about the kids that don't have access to begin even having the dream because performance spaces are built exclusively. For Big Umbrella to make accessible performance spaces for kids with these developmental disabilities it makes it so that they can have the dream to be a dancer and have the realization that 'yes, it is possible' and that's the most exciting part.”
One of DiFranco’s dance partners during the Big Umbrella Festival performance of Incommunicado was accomplished dancer and choreographer DeMarco Sleeper, who performs as a sit-down dancer in a wheelchair, with Dancing Wheels. He made a big impression on DiFranco, and she said she appreciated his guidance throughout the training and performance.
“He's so cool,” she said. “I'm a very awkward person, but the thing that I would have told him is that I have dreamt of this since I was a little girl and you have provided me with so much guidance and you are bringing my dreams to fruition. Thank you! That's what I wanted to say to him, but I was too nervous.”
DiFranco said that dancing with sit down dancers is just like dancing with stand-up dancers.
“You always have to negotiate each other’s bodies and communicate and figure it out,” DiFranco said. “You're building a relationship when you dance.”
To learn more about Dancing Wheels and upcoming performances, visit https://dancingwheels.org/.
Why Kent State?
“I chose Kent State after meeting with the dance faculty I met at the audition, particularly Barbara Verlezza and Gregory King,” DiFranco said. “I felt really inspired by them and I felt confident that Kent could be a home for me.”
DiFranco admits that she did not originally plan to go to Ohio for college.
“I was thinking I would go to California or Florida, but Kent State ended up being exactly what I needed, especially because of the professors, but also because of the friends I made,” DiFranco said. “I don't think my college journey would have been what it was without them. Just having my dance professors constantly telling us to go out there and audition made a big impact. I don't think I would have had the confidence to do so if I hadn't been encouraged the way I was.”
While at Kent State, DiFranco received the May O’Donnell Memorial Dance Award and the dance faculty award for outstanding achievement as an emerging artist and dance scholar. Her piece, Letters From a Monster, and dance film, Unscripted Puppet: The Staged Resurrection, were presented at the Cleveland Dance Festival in 2022. She has attended summer intensives with Deeply Rooted, Koresh, Visceral, and LA Contemporary Dance Company.
Choosing to double major
As a freshman student, DiFranco started as just a dance major, but by her second semester she felt like there was something missing. She was taking a class with Jessica Jewell, Ph.D., senior academic program director for the Wick Poetry Center, who encouraged her to the point where she realized that she should also major in English. Her writing has since been published in See Chicago Dance, Luna Negra, and Brainchild.
“Writing has always brought me joy and it was something that I used to be scared to pursue professionally,” DiFranco said. “I just decided to do it with the support of Jessica Jewell."
“After I graduate, I am going to move to Cleveland and keep working with the (Dancing Wheels) company and my plan is to hopefully shadow the grant writer for the company as well,” DiFranco said.
I just don't know who I am without dance. It's been a part of my life since I was three. It's my main way of expressing myself. It's my release.
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Jim Maxwell, email@example.com, 330-672-8028