Daryl V. Rowland
CLEVELAND: Back in 1941, a sensitive soul was made to feel like a complete social outcast by those around him. He was mocked, ridiculed and humiliated because of the shape of his body.
As with many victims of bullying, he suffered from debilitating depression.
Even his nickname was less than flattering: Dumbo.
In the original Disney animated film, peers tease the young elephant because of unusually large ears, but he learns to overcome his body issues, bests the bullies who have tormented him and in the end becomes a hero to all. (Not to mention an iconic ride at Walt Disney Parks.)
But not every bullied child has a mouse with a heart of gold to help him triumph like Dumbo.
That’s why Mary Verdi-Fletcher, founder of Dancing Wheels Company & School, conceived of retelling Dumbo, first as a live dance performance, then as a documentary film, and ultimately as an ongoing educational program for schools, prisons and other institutions with bullying problems.
The made-for-television documentary, Daring to Be Dumbo, airs on Cleveland’s Channel 3 (WKYC) at 7 p.m. Saturday.
Narrated by TV host and weatherman Al Roker, who says he was bullied for his weight issues as a young man, the film features the personal stories of several people involved with the project who have emerged strengthened from past encounters with bullying.
One of the people viewers will meet is Justin Bachman, a high school student with Tourette syndrome who was barred from a cross country meet because of his vocal ticks. He responded by starting a program called Tolerance Fair. Its purpose is to draw awareness to the plight of those perceived to be different and help them achieve their goals.
Another person featured is Elec Simon, a former member of the touring dance show Stomp. He quit the show to head up an anti-bullying program that uses rhythm and music to educate and build greater empathy for victims.
To fund the Dumbo project, Verdi-Fletcher received the Creative Culture Grant offered by the Cuyahoga Arts and Culture organization last year.
The organization has been a significant force in supporting the arts in Northeast Ohio and is among the entities funded by the so-called sin tax from tobacco sales.
Verdi-Fletcher said the project “brings to fruition a yearlong campaign to bring a vision of hope and possibility to those who have struggled with the indignities of bullying and other social injustices.”
The original stage performance of Daring to Be Dumbo premiered last May at the Breen Center in Cleveland under the direction of choreographer David Rousseve. The retelling of the Dumbo story was set in a modern junior high school, incorporating on-stage video and life-sized puppets.
The role of Timothy, the helpful mouse, was played by Jen Sikora, a wheelchair dancer and a graduate of the Dancing Wheels School.
For viewers who enjoy the joyous integration of wheelchair dancers and traditional dancers made popular by Dancing Wheels, the company presents its annual benefit gala and show Rock That Rolls! on April 11 atCleveland’s Public Auditorium and Conference Center.
For more information, visit www.dancingwheels.org.
Daryl Rowland can be reached at email@example.com.