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'Sand in an Oyster,' A Dancer for the Disabled

Ballerina Rossana Penaloza spent six months in a wheelchair and wrote a play that has brought new attention to attitudes toward the disabled in Mexico.
Ballerina Rossana Penaloza spent six months in a wheelchair and wrote a play that has brought new attention to attitudes toward the disabled in Mexico. (Edgar Blancas - For The Washington Post)

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By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 4, 2008

MEXIC O CITY -- Rossana Peñaloza has floated across stages in Lima and Havana and Mexico City. She has writhed and winced, spun and darted.

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But this prima ballerina, the embodiment of beauty and athleticism, had to sit down to really shake people.

Sit down in a wheelchair.

For weeks now, Peñaloza has shocked and shamed Mexico, performing a one-woman show that challenges perceptions of the disabled in a country where people with disabilities frequently live cloistered lives because of the social stigma associated with their condition here. Though Peñaloza is not disabled -- at age 45, her limbs can still send her shooting artfully across a stage -- she conceived a startling performance almost entirely confined to a wheelchair. A dance on wheels.

For six months before her debut this spring, Peñaloza chose to live in a wheelchair. She tried to navigate Mexico City sidewalks that have no ramps or that have broken ramps or ramps so narrow her wheelchair didn't fit. She cringed as speeding drivers came breathtakingly close to running her down, even when she was in the crosswalk.

But most of all, she watched people's eyes. After years of catching bouquets and taking bows, she suddenly was "the other," a freak, an annoyance and, maybe worst of all, an object of pity.

She cried every day. And she was furious.

"And You, What?" -- the title of Peñaloza's one-woman show -- grew out of those frustrating days. Her "grito" -- a Spanish word that means emphatic cry -- has turned her into an accidental activist, a buzz-generating and provocative voice. All it took was a ballerina willing not to use her legs.

She has earned a following among students at the nearby National Autonomous University of Mexico. One recent evening, scores of them packed an art house theater to watch her, many of them snapping photographs throughout the performance.

"This just makes you think a lot," said Gabriella Castro, a photography student attending the show for a second time. "I've never seen anything like it."

On stage, Peñaloza transforms her wheelchair from an object that limits her to an object that enhances. She abandons the use of her legs, picking them up and dropping them heavily over the backrest. Then she arches her back, dangling over the edge of the seat and gliding effortlessly.

In one scene, Peñaloza touches herself beneath her clothes. Lourdes Silva, director of a Mexico City radio program staffed by disabled people, was transfixed.

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