After a fall from a stilt-house porch left him paralyzed, John Beauregard couldn't bare the looks he received from people when he was confined to his wheelchair. For the first 17 years after his spinal cord injury, Beauregard constantly felt embarrassed.
Then he joined Karen Peterson and Dancers in 2000, and began performing contemporary dance onstage.
"I was literally embarrassed to be seen in my wheelchair. It just puts you in that place that everybody feels sorry for you," says Beauregard, 70, who has limited arm movement. "Now I can't get enough of it. There's no stage big enough, no audience big enough."
Since then, Beauregard, of Miami, has traveled the world dancing with the mixed-ability company, which currently features three wheelchair dancers and four able-bodied performers.
The company will perform Oct. 22 at a dance showcase at The New World School of the Arts Dance Theater. They will also perform for public school students at "A New Definition of Dance," an event Oct. 25-26 featuring mixed-ability dance workshops and shows by dancers with disabilities.
Peterson is used to audience members' surprise when they see the fluid movements created by the dancers.
The dancers often work together in duos, in which able-bodied dancers perform acrobatic movements such as handstands atop the wheelchair dancers, who slide freely through the stage. Wheelchair dancers also partner with each other, holding hands and spinning the wheels to form a moving circle.
Most of those unique movements come from improvisation sessions Peterson holds during rehearsals at Excello Dance space in Kendall.
"Dancers develop their own movement vocabulary. What we're looking for is originality and their physicality," Peterson, 60, says. "They find their own unique way of moving. All that partner work in the chair, I didn't teach them to do it, they learned it on their own."
Katrina Weaver, 33, an able-bodied dancer and choreographer from Coral Springs, has been partnering with Beauregard for seven years. She says creating new movements is a constant challenge, but she's learned to take more risks through the years.
"In the beginning you kind of approach it as a chair, but the more you dance with them, you think of them as part of their body," Weaver says. "It provides a platform to take more weight on because they have that extension of their body. So it definitely provides another element to work with, and it gives you a sense of risk and a sense of speed."
For Peterson, it all started in 1990, when a woman with multiple sclerosis asked her to create a choreography in which she could participate. Peterson was co-director for Momentum Dance Company, and this was at a time when people with disability were becoming more vocal about their rights.
"Activists were becoming more outspoken about the rights of people who have disability, but I've never seen myself as an activist," she says. "Because I wanted to be a choreographer, and to me people with disability fit in the puzzle of the vision that I had."
In her works, wheelchair dancers aren't always limited to their chairs. At times, they perform without them doing floor work. Besides paralysis, Peterson has also worked with other disabilities, such as blindness and cerebral palsy.
Shawn Buller, 59, of Miami, has been a chair dancer with the company for 10 years. When a virus attacked her spinal cord in 1985, she lost all movement from the neck down. Since then, she's recovered her upper body and some leg movement.
Before Karen Peterson, her only performance experience was dancing with pom-poms in high school. She says the dance company has given her a new identity.
"It just seems out of the norm that someone with a disability would have a title as dancer," she says. "So I had this whole new identity."
For Beauregard, becoming a dancer has helped in his personal life. After a rehearsal, instead of tired, he feels full of energy.
"The more I move, the more I want to move," he says. "When I get home, I just keep moving. And if I'm not dancing, I just get kind of stagnant."
Karen Peterson Dancers will perform at 3 and 8 p.m. Oct. 22 at the New World School of the Arts Dance Theater, 25 NE Second St., Eighth Floor, Miami. Admission is $15-$25. Go to DanceNowMiami.org.
For information about "A New Definition of Dance," call 905-375-5024 or go to vsafl.org/content/new-definition-dance.
For information on Karen Peterson, call 305-298-5879 or go to KarenPetersonDancers.org.