MANHATTAN — When dancer Kitty Lunn recalls the last day she walked, it's the wet, slippery snow covering the city's streets that she remembers.
She was young, but Lunn had a promising future ahead of her. She had performed her way from a small ballet company in New Orleans to the bright lights of Broadway, and dreamed of stardom on the Great White Way.
That all changed in an instant when she slipped on a piece of ice and fell down some stairs, shattering her vertebrae in several places. Suddenly a paraplegic — paralyzed from the hips down, and forever bound to a wheelchair — Lunn’s heart broke. Over the next few months, she saw her dreams crumble.
“I didn’t know any disabled dancers,” she said. “I thought it was over.”
Yet last Wednesday, 25 years later, Lunn could be found in a studio on the Upper West Side, practicing degages — a sharp movement of the legs — with her arms. Lunn was teaching her weekly class, from her wheelchair, which she’s undertaken in addition to preparation for the fall season of her company, “Infinity Dance Theater.”
Lunn’s kept the schedule of any "normal" dancer. She’s held rehearsal several times a week for her professional company of disabled and non-disabled dancers, and taken class at Steps on Broadway almost every day since starting the company in 1995.
Her dedication, she said, is intentional — she wants to prove to other disabled dancers that a wheelchair doesn’t mean the end of a career.
Next season, she will drive the point home with a new piece called the “Women’s Stories Project,” in which she encouraged her company members to tell their own stories of disablement and other life-altering experiences through dance.
“People make assumptions about people with disabilities, especially in dance, where your body is your instrument,” Lunn, 61, said before class last week.
“The dance world has been known to have prejudices about what a dancer should look like. That’s a very big form of discrimination.”
Lunn’s story is perfect material for a feature film. She, and other disabled dancers from social wheelchair dancing groups from the United States and abroad, informed the New York-based movie "Musical Chairs," which debuted in AMC theaters in the city Friday.
The film, directed by Susan Siedelman, portrays a disheartened ballroom dancer from the Upper East Side who is also paralyzed in a wheelchair.
Although the movie is about competitive ballroom dancing, and Lunn describes herself as a ballet and modern dancer, the main issue that both Lunn and Siedelman have brought up is that there aren’t enough resources for disabled dancers of any kind in New York or the rest of the U.S. Wheelchair dancing hasn't seemed to catch on, even though it's popular in Europe.
In fact, the American DanceWheels Foundation, one of the area's only nonprofit dedicated to the art of wheelchair ballroom and Latin dance, has only a handful of resources available to disabled New Yorkers, and no regular studio classes devoted to the sport.
“Not only, historically, have people been excluded from something like dancing, they haven’t been given the opportunity to learn mainstream technique at all,” Lunn explained. “There aren’t that many teachers like myself out there, with disabilities, who know what to do with that.”
Both Siedelman and Lunn underscore the importance of having a support system for people who are disabled. Both the movie and Lunn’s tale are essentially love stories.
While she was in the hospital, Lunn explained, she was also falling in love with her future husband. And it was he who first convinced her to pick herself up and get back into class.
“It was Andrew who said, ‘Well, if you want to dance, what’s stopping you? Is there a rule or something?’” Lunn recalled.
“So I did, in fear and trembling.”
In “Musical Chairs,” Armando, an aspiring Latin dancer and janitor from the Bronx, also saves the paralyzed Mia from a deep depression by winning her trust, and eventually convincing her to enter a wheelchair-friendly ballroom competition with him.
But not every disabled dancer has a Romeo to rescue them, and Siedelman says she tried hard to make an attempt to show what it meant to be a struggling, paralyzed performer.
Using actual actors with disabilities in the film, such as hip-hop dancer and actress Auti Angel, Siedelman touched upon the depression and hopelessness a disabled dancer often feels, and what it’s like to overcome the horror and chagrin of falling out of a chair during a choreographic mishap.
“I wanted to make a movie that’s more inspiring than depressing,” Siedelman said. “I’ve always been attracted to underdog stories, and I love the idea that people, no matter what their disability is, whether physical or emotional, set their own limitations and overcome them.”
She even contacted Lunn to try to use her chairs, which are specially designed for dancing by her ever-attentive husband. It was an offer Lunn refused. “I’m a choreographer- I’m not in the wheelchair business,” she quipped.
It’s details such as these that could evoke emotion, Siedelman added, something that she wanted her viewers to feel like she did, the first time she saw disabled dancers performing from a wheelchair.
“I wasn’t familiar with how beautiful and expressive it could be, and that’s the thing that really surprised me,” she said. “The amazing thing about the dance sequences in the film is that they’re so lively and sexy.”
But the real story is a little more complicated than what plays out in the film, Lunn and her students explained during class last Wednesday.
The hardest part, the dancers said, is trying to get an audience — whether on stage or in a social dancing situation — to take them seriously, and not pity them for their disability.
“When we go out to parties, at a club, people come up to you and do a weird kind of dance to try and pep you up,” dancer Jessica De La Rosa said about living in a wheelchair.
With Lunn, though, it’s different, she added.
“But this is more of…I’m dancing, and I’m doing choreography,” she added. “We’re enjoying it, and we’re having fun, and it's something anybody else would do — it’s not a pity thing.”
Lunn certainly doesn’t play into pity, as she proved at in a recent class. She gives the class at no cost, but her dancers, no matter how disabled, are expected to show up on time and try their hardest.
She describes herself as “strict but fair” — after all, it’s only by adhering to the standards that other dancers have can any disabled dancer or group hope to compete, and grow, in New York’s cutthroat world.
It's paid off — over the past 10 years, her company has regularly been shown at the much-respected Joyce SoHo theater.
“The process has remained remarkably the same,” she said about transitioning from non-disabled to disabled.
“This is such an integral part of who I am. I am a dancer.”