A Teacher in Charleston Finds a New Normal after a Debilitating Spinal Cord Injury

In 2015, Rodgers collaborated with choreographers Kristin Fieseler Alexander, of Annex Dance, and Jonathan Tabbort and Stephen Gabriel, of Ballet Evolution Charleston, for a physically integrated performance. From left: Cathy Cabaniss, Julie DeLizza, Rodgers. Photo by Adam Chandler Photography, courtesy of Rodgers

Life changed for Marka Danielle Rodgers four years ago when a driver ran a red light and T-boned her car. The crash left her an incomplete quadriplegic (meaning she still has some nerve function below the point of injury), but it hasn't stopped her from teaching ballet. Now, she leads class from her wheelchair, using hand and arm motions to explain each combination. She talks through corrections and verbalizes even the tiny technical details that are often just easily shown. When she does leave her chair, she leads floor barre–like exercises on the ground. Then she gets back in her chair.

Rodgers, who worked with Ailey II in the late 1970s, has regained much mobility and strength in her arms and upper torso since the accident. In addition to teaching ballet at several dance studios in the Charleston, South Carolina, area, she leads a total-body strengthening and wellness regimen she calls Ultimate Physicality. And while teaching from a wheelchair poses quite a few limitations, in some ways, those limitations have enhanced her teaching.

Because she can't demonstrate, she won't take on beginner or children's classes, unless she has an assistant. Yet she's found a silver lining in not being able to rely on her legs. "I had to learn how to verbalize corrections and use every bit of imagery I could," she says. "I had to figure out how to explain, for example, working the inner thighs instead of locking the quads." Her students have also benefited. "They've become more aware of their bodies. Instead of simply mimicking movement, they have to think about it and understand how their bodies work."

Even floorwork has taken on new meaning. "There's a real challenge in lying on your back, putting your legs in the air and doing pliés in all positions against an imaginary ceiling," she says. "Students gain a whole new perspective when they stand back up."

And she's particularly passionate about posture. "We all talk about core, and everyone points to their stomach," she says. "But I prefer using the word 'trunk,' so students visualize the muscles 360 degrees around the spinal column. It's from that torso strength and mobility that their limbs can extend and move freely." And ever since she sustained a separate neck injury in 1994, she has been sensitive to her students' neck health. "Seeing dancers cambré back or do a headroll, completely letting their heads fall back—crunching the cervical spine—drives me crazy."

Photo by Adam Chandler Photography, courtesy of Rodgers

When asked if she thinks new students—or their parents—question her ability or qualifications as a teacher, Rodgers is diplomatic. "It's hard to know what other people are thinking," she says. "But I do suspect that some people are afraid to ask me to teach, because they may fear the impression I give to parents. And that makes me very sad." Do people treat her differently? "Other than asking if I need help, I don't see it," she says. "But I think it's my presence. When I'm in the studio, I'm in my comfort zone, and therefore people around me are more comfortable."

Recently Rodgers has been working with doctors to use a bendable leg brace, with sensors, a gyroscope and a battery, called an E-Mag Active stance control. This past April, she used the equipment to become the first wheelchair user to walk Charleston's famous Cooper River Bridge Run, a 6.2-mile race. She started the Purple Legs UP campaign after her claims for insurance coverage were denied. A generous friend eventually purchased the leg braces for her, a sum of roughly $20,000. But as Rodgers knows well, most people do not have the same advantage. Funds raised from Purple Legs UP are donated to Roper Rehabilitation Hospital's Center for Spinal Cord Injury in hopes of contributing to equipment for others.

“The braces have changed my life," she says in a video on the campaign Facebook page. “Standing, walking, reaching the top shelf in the fridge. Seeing what's in a pot on the stove. Looking people in the eye."

Now she's hoping to bring that technology into the studio—perhaps to allow her to dance and choreograph, something she misses dearly, and to help dancers of all abilities. “We have this idea of what classical ballet should be, or what jazz or hip hop should be," she says. “I've always said that anybody can dance. You may not dance on Broadway or in a ballet company, but you can dance. And now, I understand this from a much more visceral place."

Nan Melville, courtesy Genn

Not so long ago, it seemed that ballet dancers were always encouraged to pull up away from the floor. Ideas evolved, and more recently it has become common to hear teachers saying "Push down to go up," and variations on that concept.

Charla Genn, a New York City–based coach and dance rehabilitation specialist who teaches company class for Dance Theatre of Harlem, American Ballet Theatre and Ballet Hispánico, says that this causes its own problems.

"Often when we tell dancers to go down, they physically push down, or think they have to plié more," she says. These are misconceptions that keep dancers from, among other things, jumping to their full potential.

To help dancers learn to efficiently use what she calls "Mother Marley," Genn has developed these clever techniques and teaching tools.

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