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Dances with wheels

In an ideal world, there would be enough technology to allow people living with disabilities to function in a similar manner to those who are not disabled.

The world of dance is well on its way to achieving this goal. Mixed abilities – or integrated – dances are choreographed performances that involve dancers with and without disabilities working together.

Merry Lynn Morris, USF’s School of Visual Arts instructor and academic advisor, has been working and experimenting in the category of mixed abilities dance for nearly 10 years. After working with mixed abilities dancers as well as caring for her disabled father for the past 19 years, Morris is the perfect candidate to take on the task of creating a more versatile wheelchair.

Morris brought the idea of the Rolling Dance chair to USF’s Engineering department, specifically Dr. Rajiv Dubey, chair of the department of mechanical engineering and Stephen Sundarrao, associate director of the Rehabilitation Engineering and Technology program at USF.

Thanks to an internal grant the trio has been working on the chair’s development for nearly two years. Sundarrao’s students contributed by developing the chair’s prototype, which was released earlier this year and is still patent pending.

The engineers’ goals are for the chair to allow more freedom to dancers with disabilities and to provide more choreographic collaboration between able-bodied and disabled dancers.

Since the 1600’s, wheelchairs have provided support and mobility for those who needed it. Although these are still necessary traits for the chair used in dance, more emphasis is placed on artistic, fluid motions.

“The hands were very confined to controlling the chair; now the dancer can lean with their body and move as a single unit,” says Morris. The ingenuity of the rolling dance chair is that it conforms to the physical abilities of the dancer.

Rather than working the hands until they are callus, this innovative design allows the hands to freely express movement while the torso muscles control the chair.

This performance mobility device is currently being used at Revolutions Dance, a non-profit professional dance company that has specialized in mixed-abilities dance since 2005. According to their Web site,, their philosophy is that everyone can dance. Morris is an instructor and performer for Revolutions, whose input has been vital in the design of the device.

Sundarrao feels very satisfied with the results of their efforts. “It is already being used for its original intent: mixed abilities dance,” he says.

Although everyone is pleased with the outcome, the chair is far from finished. “We are looking for it to be used for alternative control in the future,” says Sundarrao.

Morris also sees the chair eventually being used as a rehab tool and she is looking for ways to add more options. She hopes that by next year a panel will be assigned to analyze people using the chair and working to perfect the model.

Videos of the chair in action, as well as a list of events where it can be previewed, can be found on its Web site,