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Dance With A Message: I Am More Than My Wheelchair

Marjorie Burnett rehearses with Pioneer Winter for a mixed-ability dance performance.
Nadege Green
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Marjorie Burnett is one of the founding members of Karen Peterson and Dancers, a mixed-ability dance company in Miami.

Burnett has cerebral palsy, and in the latest piece she’s rehearsing  she wants to challenge how people look at her because she’s in wheelchair.

“I want to show the audience that I’m a real person,” she says.

Burnett, 54, is performing with guest choreographer Pioneer Winter.  The piece is entitled “Gimp Gait,” a nod to the stereotypes and slurs used against people with disabilities.

During rehearsal, Winter lifts her up, leaving her wheelchair empty.

She leans against his body as they make their way to center stage.  Burnett performs the entire dance without her wheelchair.

She says she wants the audience to see her fullness and her possibilities.

“It makes me freer than I could ever feel,” says Burnett.

Burnett and Winter make their way across the room during a recent rehearsal. On either side of them are mirrors reflecting their every move.

Her body is hunched over, hands slightly contorted. She moves her arms in staccato bursts and then, in a very fluid and deliberate gesture, she gives the audience the finger.

Pioneer Winter and Marjorie Burnett rehearse 'Gimp Gait,' a piece that confronts stereotypes of what it means to be in a wheelchair.
Credit Nadege Green / WLRN
The Florida Channel
Pioneer Winter and Marjorie Burnett rehearse 'Gimp Gait,' a piece that confronts stereotypes of what it means to be in a wheelchair.

Burnett and Winter choreographed this piece together.

“All the gestures were derived from conversations that we had. Even flipping the bird," says Winter. “She’s feisty. A lot of people don’t see because they see the chair first.”

Karen Peterson founded Karen Peterson and Dancers 26 years ago. As she looks on during rehearsal, she says the power behind Burnett’s movements surprised here.

“It’s a whole new physicality of Marjorie, a side of Marjorie that I’ve never seen before,” Peterson says.

The movement is gripping. There’s tension as Burnett challenges herself--rolling around on the ground and taking bold steps on stage with help from Winter.

It’s a duet, but also part solo. There are times where Winter is almost like a prop for Burnett.

Peterson says this is not mainstream movement. It’s not ballet.

“It’s way more than pique, arabesque…It’s communication.  It’s relationships. It’s partnerships,” she says. “It’s really the soul that needs to speak on stage.”

Midway through the dance, Winter carries Burnett in what appears to be an innocent embrace, but then he turns his back.

Burnett has a firm grasp on his butt.

“I’ve been really frustrated with, you know,  people always having the misconception that we’re not sexual,” she says of people with cerebral palsy, "that we’re really innocent and all we do is sit in the wheelchair. That’s not all we are."


What:  Karen Peterson and Dancers

When: 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday

Where: Miami-Dade County Auditorium , 2901 W. Flagler St., Miami

Cost: $20, $15 students/seniors/wheelchair users; 

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Nadege Greencovers social justice issues for WLRN.