Wednesday, June 4, 2008

A Ballerina's Grito*

*Spanish word meaning emphatic cry. Rosana Peñaloza nearly single-handedly is exposing Mexicans to the shame of their prejudices against people with disabilities. After an age when many ballet dancers have retired because of wear and tear on their bodies, she maintains enviable a grace and strength. She is also on a personal mission. For six months last year, she experimented with being handicapped in Mexico City. In a wheelchair, she tried to navigate the city's sidewalks, most of which have no ramps or some too narrow to accommodate a wheelchair. She felt invisible to drivers who zipped around her, narrowly missing her chair. The city's cherished and historic cobblestone streets were a nightmare. Trying to make eye contact proved immeasurably painful. She went from being an acclaimed artist to a figure of pity and disdain. She cried every day not just for herself, but for the thousands of Mexicans who were suffering the same indignities and prejudices. All of this was done to prepare for a performance piece she debuted before a Mexican audience this past Spring. She danced sitting in a wheelchair. Audience members were moved by her grace and agility. They were also forced to examine their own consciences when she locked eyes with individuals asking "will you play with me?"-- will you be my friend? -- will you give me work?" Ms. Peñaloza was inspired by handicapped students to whom she taught dance in a Mexican center for children with disabilities. She was impressed with their abilities, even though some could not see or hear. Mexican tradition states that handicapped individuals are better off being segregated from the rest of society because they are not perfect. What she discovered and now tries to convey to the public is that being disabled doesn't end a life. Physically challenged is a more accurate description and Ms. Peñaloza wants to illustrate how people bearing them compensate in extraordinary ways. She is attempting to grow a pearl of wisdom when she says "my work is a grain of sand in an oyster so that all this can change." Amen.

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