Tampa dancer's wheelchair invention makes dance accessible
A Florida dance professor has invented a wheelchair that allows children with limited mobility to dance. Not pretend to dance, not be pulled by a dancer, but actually dance.
Tampa, Fla. — The kids released their wheelchairs and leg braces, the sticks that help them see and the iPads that help them speak, and piled them in a corner.
They went to Merry Lynn Morris, with her twisting blond hair and legs like a ballerina in a jewelry box. She helped them stretch and rubbed their bellies.
"Reach your arms all the way up," she said. "Look to the sky, and say thank you!"
Morris is a dance professor at the University of South Florida, and more recently, an inventor. She was introducing kids with spina bifida and cerebral palsy to a chair she dreamed up. On this weekend in their class, the chair would let them dance. Not pretend to dance, not be pulled by a dancer, but actually dance.
The kids peered at it, standing tall in the corner of the studio.
Anybody in any body should have the right to dance, Morris said. An accident or a disability needn't relegate the people you love to your back, pushing you, telling you where to go.
If her father had been able to use this chair, he might have danced again, too.
The Rolling Dance Chair was born from the brain of a dancer, not an engineer. It has taken seven years and $150,000 of grant money to get to this point, evolving from a stripped down Segway – those rolling devices that tour groups ride through cities – to a sleek, elegant design.
It's getting closer to what Morris imagined, getting more attention from the world each year. U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, a double amputee, tried the chair on a visit to USF in 2010. In October, Morris will present her invention at the Smithsonian Institution during a conference for innovators, speaking alongside the press secretary from NASA and the deputy director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
The chair is stately with a synthetic round seat that's clear, designed to almost disappear under the dancer. It is sturdy enough for a second dancer to stand on, spinning, leg extended in full arabesque.
The most important feature of the chair is the person sitting in it. He is in control. When he leans, the chair moves. The wheels can propel the chair in any direction using the slightest movement of a body.
It's an extension of dance, Morris said, not an obstacle. No one thinks twice about a tap shoe, or a ballet shoe with a wooden block on the end. Think of Broadway dances, the rolling desk chairs and elaborate sets. Think of the hoops and flames of Cirque du Soleil.
People have a harder time getting past a wheelchair.
"You create these devices and people are frightened of them," said Morris, 38. "Get out of the way, here comes the wheelchair user."
Reality doesn't have to be so black and white, and dance doesn't have to be so exact. It's something she has learned over the years.
"The manifestation of this project is sort of my whole way of being in the world," she said. "It has been shaped by the desire to bring multiple realities together."
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Morris was a dancer from the start. She had strong ankles and uncanny leg extension. She also loved to take things apart, ride her bike with no hands, and try every piece of equipment on the playground.
She enjoyed the rigid instruction of ballet, the structure it provided. But she also loved when her dad danced silly with her, tossed her in the air, threw his head back, and let loose one of his wild belly laughs.
Bill Morris was a man of God, his family said, a Gideon who distributed free Bibles, a Navy veteran. He was starting a marketing business with his wife, whose name was Catherine but whom he nicknamed Sonshine when they first met at a prayer meeting. They said he rescued animals and people, bringing in those who needed a place to stay.
When Merry Lynn Morris was 12, she and her father painted her room in their Tampa home a sunny yellow. She remembers him leaving to go get more paint, but he didn't return. His car was hit head on, his family said. He was in a coma, and the doctors didn't think he would survive. The accident left him with a severe brain injury, a blind eye, a broken hip, and a shattered knee. After seizures set in, he had intermittent paralysis and was mostly confined to a wheelchair.
They took him ballroom dancing for therapy and got him to try standing between ballet bars.
"The dancing stimulated him the most," said Sonshine Morris. "He was beaming. He would smile."
He didn't understand basic things – that you need an umbrella in the rain, for example. But he could answer obscure questions on Jeopardy! or say something deeply philosophical.
They tried every chair they could find, from power chairs with joysticks to simple soft shell models. The chairs all had drawbacks, elements that felt cage-like and separate.
Merry Lynn Morris danced in a professional ballet company and studied at USF and Florida State. She rarely meshed her dance world and home life. The crisp rules of dance, the exacting finger positions and postures, were a respite from the complicated reality.
"They didn't really feel like they connected," she said. "Later, I kind of realized that people recognize that life is bigger, and there are important things, and you can share those things."
As for Sonshine, she dreamed her husband and daughter might dance together one more time, that he might fly across the stage with her little girl.
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Morris has long been drawn to "mixed ability" dance, kinesiology, ways to combine dance and science. For years, she has worked with REVolutions Dance, a company for dancers with and without disabilities, which offers weekly dance classes for kids.
In 2000, she saw a performance by wheelchair dancers and noticed how they had to pump the wheels, how the chair was more of a distraction than a seamless part of the movement.
She and her mother spent time in the back yard taking apart Bill's old wheelchairs, fashioning them into marionettes, wondering if clamps and sticks and pulls might make the wheels move — might make the chair dance.
In 2005, Morris approached the USF College of Engineering with the idea for a wheelchair that moved with the user's body. The first grant was for $20,000. The college bought two Segways. Students mounted a seat to one.
Another group worked with an existing power chair, reorienting the connection of the joystick. Pressure changes on the seat caused movement similar to a Segway. It was good at first, but like a new pair of shoes giving slow blisters. It was jerky, had trouble stopping.
"The experimentation process in this project is incredibly important," Morris said. "You can theorize in your head all of these kinds of ideas and concepts and things, but then the actuality of being in the chair, is a totally different piece of it."
The chair went to California to a company called Visual Realm, then to Pensacola and a company called Vertec, where developer Neil Edmonston started work. It needed smoother, more intricate controls. Maybe an object that could be strapped to the head or chest of the person in it, programmed to read subtle movements. But also something a caretaker could use in place of pushing. A remote control, in a way.
A smartphone, Edmonston realized, with its ability to respond when a person tilts it. It was the perfect option for this supercharged century, when we're all really just bodies interacting with devices.
"When you have that kind of flexibility, you open yourself to a great deal of opportunities," Edmonston said. "This is a research project that could potentially be very exciting."
Edmonston envisions the chair eventually working like a robotic vacuum cleaner, programmed to know the boundaries of your house, to know that when you unload the dishwasher, you need to move back and to the right to get to the counter.
It could be used for even more than dance. It's what Morris wanted from the start.
"What my mom and I discovered when we were caregivers were the challenges of what disability means," Morris said. "Just navigation through a space that was designed for a 20-year-old able-bodied person, it has really opened my eyes in how we design things, how we make those choices, and why. Who are we thinking about?"
Bill Morris died decades after his accident. But he did get to watch as his daughter's invention take shape. A series of dance performances at USF featured an early incarnation of the Rolling Dance Chair.
He went to three of the shows, watching from the dark wings, mesmerized.
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Merry Lynn Morris helped Jessica Hendricks climb into the Rolling Dance Chair.
The 7-year-old girl with spina bifida had a pink bow in her hair and a tiny, traditional wheelchair in the corner. Morris set controls on an iPhone and slipped it into a brace against the little girl's chest.
Jessica moved forward. The chair moved forward.
"Whoa," Jessica said. "This is fun. It can turn?"
Jessica moved 45 degrees and the chair spun. Morris hung on, spinning with her, bending deep and extending her leg, and together they flew across the floor.