A wheelchair won’t keep this Cork man away from the dance floor

Dance performer William O’Donovan tells SHAMIM MALEKMIAN how he can still express himself through the medium of artistic movement
A wheelchair won’t keep this Cork man away from the dance floor
William O'Donovan dancing. Picture: Shamim Malekmian.

WILLIAM O’Donovan has an ultra-positive attitude to being a wheelchair user.

“You know, when you get on a wheelchair, you get so comfortable, you don’t want to get up,” he smiles.

The 36-year-old’s positivity extends to dancing — which he has perfected to such a degree that he even does performances.

William, from Ballincollig, has had trouble walking since childhood.

“I was always a bit slower than the rest of the people,” he recalls, adding that one incidence of tripping and falling down a neighbour’s stairs as a child remains sharp.

“I don’t know how, but somehow I walked home. I remember then I had to go on tablets so I could walk,” he says.

William also remembers the “walking frames” he had to use afterwards.

He saw several doctors, who couldn’t figure out what was wrong with his legs, and recalls with fondness the one who successfully diagnosed him.

“The minute we walked in, the doctor said, ‘I know exactly what’s wrong with you,’” he says, smiling. “I have epilepsy in my lower limbs.”

Unlike most epileptic patients, William’s seizures do not impact his whole body. 

“My legs will jump, but nothing else,” he explains.

He has been using a wheelchair to move about since his secondary school days.

William, however, is more than happy to “dive out” of his wheelchair, if he is invited to dance, a vocation encouraged by his mother.

“You can’t say no to your mother, no matter how much you really want to sometimes,” he says, chuckling.

William O'Donovan dancing. Picture: Shamim Malekmian
William O'Donovan dancing. Picture: Shamim Malekmian

Since joining Cork’s integrated dance company Croí Glan, his life as a performer has been remarkably successful.

For a dance piece in 2016’s Dublin Fringe Festival, for example, William was nominated as the best performer. The Cork man has danced in front of crowds of up to 2,000-strong.

William says he owes his success to prominent contemporary dancer Tara Brandel, who is the founder of Croí Glan.

Tara, a 53-year-old Ballydehob native, has a unique approach to dance, one of inclusivity and open-mindedness.

As a lesbian teenager honing her dancing skills in the 1980s in England, she is acutely aware of the devastating pain of feeling excluded. She says, she came out to a community of dancers who tolerated her homosexuality yet set out to ostracise her. A female dancer, she reasons, had to be feminine at the time, and Tara, with her “shaved head and leather jackets”, was considered a norm-breaker.

“I was the only lesbian in the whole dancing school, and I got quite bullied by the other dance students,” she recalls. “It made me feel excluded.”

The painful experience made her determined to update our conventional notion of dancing by training people with various disabilities, regardless of size and age, to dance. She says, as long as you can dance, nothing should stop you, “and it’s so hard to define dance”.

Croí Glan’s newest double-bill show, for example, Visible and Invisible and Too, features dancer Linda Fearon, a performer with cerebral palsy, a condition marked by impaired muscle coordination.

Visible and Invisible is an ode to dancing those parts of your life that make you an outcast, your hidden and overt disabilities, your quirks, even your least attractive traits.

On the stage of Cork’s Firkin Crane earlier this month, Linda and fellow dancer Rebecca Reilly danced for a moment, then stopped to share intimate details about themselves to the audience.

“I’m not your inspiration,” Linda told a crowd who, visibly inspired by the dancer, broke into surprised laughter.

In Too, Tara pays tribute to victims of sexual abuse in the dance industry. She portrays a scantily clad dancer who moves with the grace of a black swan, yet soon enough, the pride is replaced with shame as she attempts to cover her body under layers and layers of shiny dresses toward the end of the show.

While working as a dancer in England, Tara had become aware of a culture of harassment, especially in the world of ballet, and Too is her way of showing her unwavering support for the global #MeToo movement.

When it comes to her students with disabilities, Tara describes William as a “tenacious” pupil.

“I appreciate his tenacity. He’s one of the most loyal people I’ve worked with,” she says.

“He’d always be there, and he always comes back, and he’s very good-natured and willing to work. It’s beautiful.”

William recalls breaking his hip while dancing once, and how he put off going to see a doctor for days.

For him, getting from his home in Ballincollig to Bachelors’ Quay to attend open mics in the city’s Haven café, in which he participates every Monday to dance, can often prove challenging.

He, mainly complains about “buses with stairs”, which encompasses most of Bus Éireann’s intercounty fleet.

But it is not that easy to dampen the dancer’s enthusiasm: “My motto is that you only live once, and you don’t know how long you’d be in this world, so you should do everything you can.”

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