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Disability and dance: Ottawa's Propeller continues to celebrate, promote diversity

Liz Winkelaar has experienced marginalization but refuses to let it define her, continues dancing her way through life
2020-10-20 propeller dance HGJ
Propeller Dance is breaking barriers by working on limiting marginalized experiences in the arts. Dancers in photo (from left to right): Nicolas Benoit Mariaca, Amelia Griffin, Liz Winkelaar, Lee Ancheta, Renata Soutter. Photo/ Andrew Balfour

Liz Winkelaar is a prime example of how life can change in an instant.

The 59-year-old has lived the entirety of her adult life as a paraplegic after a devastating motorcycle accident more than 40 years ago left her unable to move from the waist down. Surrounded by dance throughout her childhood, becoming a wheelchair user proved difficult when finding an inclusive outlet for her passion of self-expression.

But then, in 2005, she happened upon Propeller Dance, an Ottawa-based nonprofit company that believes, celebrates and promotes diversity in this particular shimmying sector of the arts.

Founded by three local dancers (one of whom uses a wheelchair) after realizing that there was a complete lack of dance programming for people with disabilities in Ottawa, Propeller Dance is leading the way in a contemporary integrated style.  

Dance and disability; Winkelaar admits that she never could have fathomed the two intersecting. 

“I was studying disability and policy and I sort of discovered that there was such a thing as disability in the arts. And I didn’t realize that it was a thing but after I found out I really wanted to be involved.”  

Gradually progressing from recreational dance classes to a teacher training program, Winkelaar was hired as one of nine professional dance members that make up the performance company, and is involved in major stage shows at venues like the Great Canadian Theatre Company and Centrepointe Theatre.

Winkelaar has also had the opportunity to try on the title of choreographer. Her eight-person performance, entitled Spasticus, premiered in Toronto in March, and highlights some heinous moments in the history of disability, like institutionalization. Ultimately though, in an effort to celebrate the diversity that disability showcases, it celebrates the pride and freedom that can eventually be found, even in the darkest of times.  

Although Winkelaar doesn’t view her disability in a negative light, she admits that it has left her to face some marginalizing experiences.  

“I used to be an elementary school teacher and I wasn’t able to get the workplace accommodation that I needed," she explains. "If you want to talk about job opportunities, transportation or income - any of the things that are fundamentally sustaining us, I think that people with disabilities are still marginalized. But I’m pretty good at pushing ahead. And I think I refuse to accept it.” 

In its own way, Propeller Dance works to alleviate these marginalized experiences by providing an opportunity that disabled persons might not otherwise find. In addition to live music and experienced teachers, the recreational students have access to support specialists, trained dancers offering specific assistance, allowing everyone to participate, no matter the challenges they happen to be facing.  

“There’s no way you’re going to bring your kid with autism and have him be left out. There’s somebody there who will connect,” says Winkelaar. “One thing that’s really unique about Propellor is that it’s all different people working together, so it doesn’t matter if it’s a physical disability, neurological difference, or mental health [diagnosis] - we all dance together. We mix it up a lot. Diversity is our goal.”  

Although the ever changing pandemic has forced Propeller Dance into the challenge of adapting and adjusting to an online platform, they remain intent on offering the encouragement of movement to children and young adults with disabilities, especially during these particularly difficult times.  

Says Winkelaar, “I think it’s fundamental to my physical health and my mental health. I think, as well, it's given me a whole vocabulary to communicate that crosses all boundaries.”

Propellor Dance is both a performance dance company and recreational dance studio. They offer classes for adults, youth and children. 
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