She flies across the dance floor with the speed, agility and grace of someone in full command of body, mind and spirit. Yet Spirit Synott cannot walk across the room. She has learned to propel herself in and outside of her wheelchair in fluid, breathtaking movements that have inspired choreographers, dancers and audiences alike, and encouraged others with disabilities to make dance a part of their lives.
“Dance is permission to express yourself, permission to be silly and have fun,” says Spirit. “Dance is therapeutic on the most basic level-to make sounds and move our bodies. It’s part of our humanness and our culture.”
“As a leisure interest, dance provides patients who have spinal cord injuries with a creative outlet for self expression – This facilitates improvement in physical and social skills while increasing participation in an activity our patients did before their injury or illness.”
Born with spina bifida, a congenital condition of the spinal column, Spirit leads dance workshops for children and adults with disabilities, including the patients at Toronto Rehab’s Lyndhurst Centre, home of the hospital’s spinal cord rehabilitation program. “I’m not teaching so they can become dancers,” she explains. “I’m teaching so they have another outlet to express themselves. It’s a way of being socially interactive.”
At a recent workshop, “there were a lot of wallflowers at the beginning,” recalls Lynda Charters, therapeutic recreationist. “Spirit shines when she’s performing. It’s like a lightbulb goes on – It’s infectious! By the end of the session, she had quite a group dancing up a storm in the gym.
“As a leisure interest, dance provides patients who have spinal cord injuries with a creative outlet for self expression,” Lynda says. “This facilitates improvement in physical and social skills while increasing participation in an activity our patients did before their injury or illness.” In addition to the physical, social, emotional and creative benefits of dance, people can improve their wheelchair skills by learning to move their chairs in rhythm to the music.
“When you become physical, there is a moment when all the problems in the world are gone,” adds Debbie Wilson, Artistic Director of OMO Dance Company and one of Spirit’s teachers and mentors. For several years, Debbie has offered periodic workshops in dance for Toronto area residents with disabilities. “Spirit is the person who challenged me to think outside of the box,” she says.
Spirit has been a guest performer with OMO in several shows at the Betty Oliphant Theatre. She also has appeared in documentary films, on television and on stage as a solo artist, in duets with able-bodied partners and in ensembles. She has studied and performs ballet, modern dance as well as African and Caribbean folk dance.
“I don’t make a living at dance,” says Spirit. “It’s difficult in the arts for anybody; it’s ten-fold when you have a disability.”
But that doesn’t stop Spirit from focusing her life around dance. “It is in my blood. For me, dance is an emotional release, a spiritual connection, a form of prayer.
“The more visible I can be, the more people will say, ‘If she can dance, maybe I can too.’ Or maybe it will help them find the courage to try something else that will make them happy.”