In her wheelchair, Marka Danielle Rodgers turns and glides, leaning to the side and raising her thin arms above her head, fingers extended. She rolls with grace and rhythm, sometimes arching her back or even sliding from the chair onto the floor, where her long body becomes an extension of the chair, or perhaps it is the other way around.
Rodgers, 57, is a dancer. She is mostly paralyzed because of two spinal cord injuries. These two facts are not contradictory.
She teaches a "conditioning class" in a studio on James Island, which is entirely based on classical ballet technique. She's been doing this since 2003, when she first started her project, Ultimate Physicality. It was nine years since her first accident. She was working out at the Medical University's Wellness Center when trainer James Johnson approached her.
"You're a dancer, aren't you," he said.
"I was," she replied.
"No, you are still a dancer."
Johnson invited Rodgers to teach a flexibility and strengthening class. More importantly, he invited her to rethink her capabilities and potential.
Today, Rodgers teaches a couple of times a week. "It's a class in which I hope to teach people a lifestyle of awareness for healthy movement to gain that maximum movement potential," she said. It's for anyone who wants the help: dancers, athletes, the fit, the frail, young and old.
Her project has its roots in Argentina, where Rodgers, fully mobile, lived and taught for most of the 1980s.
"The true origins (of Ultimate Physicality) were teaching nondancers in Argentina how to dance," she said. These were actors in musical theater productions who needed to learns how to move. "My dancers in Argentina wanted to start doing the same things they saw the actors doing."
Later, after three of her vertebrae had to be fused, Rodgers adapted her teaching techniques to assist with her own rehabilitation. All that ballet training wasn't for naught.
Rodgers grew up in Baltimore and started dancing at age 5. She concentrated on ballet but also learned jazz, tap, flamenco and other forms. By 9 or 10, she was appearing in a Baltimore Actors Theatre production of "Babes in Toyland."
Her parents sent her to Bryn Mawr School, an exclusive college preparatory school for girls. It had no theater program. "As a matter of fact, it was shunned upon," Rodgers said. But Rodgers stuck with ballet. "I've always been a bit of a rebel. There was pretty much nothing else I wanted to do, from an early age."
She auditioned for Juilliard (her destiny, she had been told), but didn't get in. The school wrote her a letter encouraging her to improve her modern dance skills then re-audition in another year. Instead, Rodgers followed a boyfriend to Boston and took an office job, then signed up for night classes at Boston Conservatory.
"The director of the dance department came to me one night and said, 'Why aren't you a student here?' " Because of the expense, she answered.
In the summer of 1976, she enrolled with a full scholarship but did not complete her degree. She left in 1978 to join the Alvin Ailey School in New York City and was invited to become part of the second company, which was focused on educational outreach, performing often in area schools.
Rodgers was considering her options when a bus accident involving the second company spooked her. She also was struggling with an eating disorder.
"I decided one day that I better haul --- if I wanted to be healthy," she said.
So she went from one extreme to another, moving into a communal macrobiotic home in Baltimore, studying nutrition and practicing yoga, t'ai chi and meditation. It was a trip to Buenos Aires in 1981, facilitated by an Argentine teacher at Boston Conservatory, that set her on a new course.
She loved Argentina. She learned Spanish. She danced and taught. She had a son, Tomas, and a new course was set again.
Tomas was born with a rare disorder, Klippel-Trenaunay syndrome, characterized by malformations of the vessels in the lymphatic and vascular systems. It can also provoke limited skeletal hypertrophy.
Rodgers decided to return to the U.S. - to Charleston, where her parents had relocated - to provide Tomas with medical care. But she had no insurance. Then a friend told her that the James Island Public Service District was looking to hire a female firefighter. She applied.
Her dance training came in handy. It enabled her to manage the intense physical demands of the job.
"I treated it like it was another role in a theater production," she said. "I loved it, loved the physicality of it, loved helping people."
She excelled professionally, trained on two tracks, engineering and medical, and soon joined the Charleston County EMS team as an emergency medical technician. She married fellow firefighter Richard Rodgers. Tomas was doing well.
She was preparing to enroll in school to gain certification as a paramedic when, on April 14, 1994, a stretcher she was helping to carry collapsed. She did not let go. Instead, she was jolted forward and suffered whiplash so severe it damaged three upper vertebrae.
It was a freak accident that resulted in neurological problems and limited her mobility. She was not paralyzed, though, and six years of rehabilitation ensured she was back on her feet, living a close-to-normal life. She was even dancing again.
Then lightning struck a second time.
On June 26, 2012, driving home to James Island from MUSC's Wellness Center after teaching a class, Rodgers was sideswiped by a driver who had run a red light. The collision caused her spine to curve too far, inflicting further damage to her spinal cord.
One of the paramedics who arrived on the scene was the man who first showed her around an ambulance.
Kim Aquino was a recreational therapist who worked with Rodgers at Roper Hospital after the second accident. The two women soon became friends. Aquino has been helping Rodgers learn how to adapt to a new reality. When the dancer first arrived at the hospital, she could not move below the shoulders. Little by little, she has regained some control over her body.
It's possible, even likely, that she will continue to improve, to forge new neural connections, to gain additional control over her hands and arms and diaphragm and hips; but two years after the second accident, it's almost certain she will forever rely on her wheelchair, her therapists said.
Yet Rodgers remains remarkably optimistic and determined.
"She knows her body so well through dance, she was really able to retrain," Aquino said. Now she is doing peer mentoring for other people who have endured similar injuries. "That's hard to do, because you dig up all those feelings you had, too. You have to be a strong person to be able to do that," Aquino said.
Usually it's the therapist who must push the patient. With Rodgers, it's the other way around. She wants to try new things, experiment, figure out what works for her, test her body. She brings to bear all her ballet training, which has enabled her to put certain muscles to use in ways only dancers understand, Aquino said. The unorthodox neural-muscular connections forged by ballet perhaps have enabled her to achieve more than someone not so conditioned.
Rodgers and Aquino now get around town more.
"Getting out and doing things in the community helps with self-worth," Aquino said. But it can be a double-edged sword for the wheelchair-bound, who can't help confront at every moment the hard facts of their limitations. "But I think she's dealing with it brilliantly."
Rodgers' marriage to Richard lasted a decade; they split amicably and remain friends. Tomas, now 25, works for a hotel company in Manhattan. For five years, the dancer has been with her boyfriend Mike Harrison, a semi-retired web designer.
Kristen Alexander, director of Annex Dance, met Rodgers soon after her second accident. She came to watch Alexander teach a class. Last fall, Rodgers signed up.
"At the very first class she came to, I said, 'I've been thinking about combinations that would be good for you.' ... She said, 'Don't think that way. Just teach your class. It's my job to figure out how to do this.' She wanted to train her own body and make adjustments."
Alexander found it remarkable.
"It's fun to watch her figuring things out. I find it very inspiring."
Alexander will teach the class a certain combination, and Rodgers will try to execute it, with her wheelchair, and sometimes her experiments don't work. So she'll try it again, differently.
"I've never seen frustration out of her," Alexander said. Only curiosity and excitement, only a determination to push herself.
Now the two women are talking about collaborating as choreographers. They are discovering an artistic realm called "integrated dance" or "mixed abilities dance."
It's not new, but it is gaining some prominence, according to its practitioners.
At Roper Hospital last week, Rodgers worked with physical therapist Katherine Bennett on lifting herself up and breathing properly without locking her elbows. Weight-bearing is very important; it helps to keep bones strong and circulation healthy, and standing up enables expansion of the lungs.
Every move Rodgers makes requires a lot of concentration and awareness, Bennett said.
Rodgers is strengthening her abs, gluts, thighs, calves and arms. She is trying to reconnect her brain to her muscles. She is straining, smiling. Always smiling.
"She's just very daring," Bennett said with a laugh.
"I'm also a big-mouth," Rodgers replied.
Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him at www.facebook/aparkerwriter.
Rodgers gets pysical therapy at Roper Hospital 2-3 days a week. Here, she is assisted by therapist Katherine Bennett and volunteer Michael Onorato.×
Rodgers gets physical therapy at Roper Hospital two to three times a week. Here, she is assisted by Katherine Bennett and Michael Onorato.×
Wade Spees/Staff “I hope nobody else ever has to know what it takes to do this,” says Marka Danielle Rodgers after pushing herself from the floor into her wheelchair during a recent class.×
After leaving her wheelchair, Rodgers leads students from the floor during class. “I hope nobody else ever has to know what it takes to do this,” she says.×
Notes outline the contents of Rodgers’ class on James Island.×
“Do as I say, not as I do,” Marka Danielle Rodgers says during an “Ultimate Physicality” class at a James Island studio, where she helps a student fine-tune a position.×
Rodgers worked as a firefighter and an emergency responder on James Island.×
Rodgers is shown early in her dance career.×
Rodgers, seen early in her career as a ballet dancer (left), has suffered two spinal cord injuries that have left her wheelchair-bound. But that hasn’t stopped her from dancing.×
Rodgers seen early in her dance career.×
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