SCI Superstar: Judith Smith (wheelchair dance pro)

So many people with spinal cord injuries found non-profits, but the reality, a lot of them go no where. That is SO not the case for Judith Smith. She’s one of the co-founders and acting artistic director of AXIS Dance Company, one of the very first integrated dance companies to exist. She’s a woman who’s been able to both redefine her own life and that of others, through dance.

Why she’s fearless?

Looking at Judith Smith now, a well-adjusted healthy and happy C6 quad, you would never guess it took her 10 years to adjust to her injury. Judith broke her neck in a car accident at age of 17. And since she was born and raised in Colorado, where the weather is definitely not that wheelchair-friendly, she was drawn to California, eventually calling Oakland home.

But Judith didn’t just get right into wheelchair dance once moving out there. It wasn’t even something she was interested in. She was a lifelong equestrian, a show horse jumper. No, she was not a dancer. But after meeting her fellow co-founders, including Thais Mazur and Bonnie Lewkowicz, who exposed her to the possibilities of dance, she was drawn-in instantly. Sometimes, the best way to heal is through artistic expression.

AXIS came to life in 1987, and it’s now regarded as one of the most successful integrated dance companies in the world. They’ve won 9 Izzy Awards over the years and last year (and this year too) their dancers performed on So You Think You Can Dance? on Fox (watch here). They didn’t compete, but they had the chance to showcase integrated dance to the world. A huge deal.

AXIS uses dancers with disabilities, and those without, and creates purposely-designed choreography that includes dancers of all abilities. And Judith herself, even though she’s busy as artistic director (which she’s been doing since 1997), still dances. She prefers her old school E&J rear drive powerchair too for the art; says it’s better for spins and other moves (watch her wheelchair dancing in her old chair).

What Judith has done with the company is huge. When she took control, she changed AXIS’ focus from employing only in-house choreographers to employing commissioned works with those outside the company, which brought tons of attention and awards through the years.

She also created the Dance Access Education Program, an outreach program to teach adults and kids with disabilities how to dance. Each year, they hire a handful of dancers to work full-time (dance FT) for their studio. I love this. Want to be a professional in wheelchair dance? It is now possible, thanks to Judith!

What’s next?

AXIS will be at the Abilities Expo in San Jose, Cali coming up this week (Nov. 16 – 18). Also, Judith stays busier than ever on outreach, working on bringing integrated dance to as many auditoriums ss possible. Check out their performance calendar to see when they’ll be performing nationally through this year into 2013, here: AXIS Performance Calendar

Have you ever been one to wheelchair dance? Why or why not? Don’t be shy!

Watch her videos!

Judith profiled on HLN in their “Breakthough Women” series

Judith’s wheelchair dance duet (“Alone Some and Twosome”) for an AXIS production

Judith being interviewed about wheelchair dance and physically integrated dance on the radio show Able Pathways

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