For Rodney Bell, who became paralysed from the chest down in a motorbike accident in 1991, dance is a saviour.
Discovering dance after a successful stint as a wheelchair basketball player – Rodney played in the New Zealand wheelchair basketball team and travelled overseas several times for tournaments – he became a professional dancer and co-founded the internationally recognised Touch Compass, New Zealand’s only professional inclusive dance company.
A talented artiste who infuses some of his Ngati Maniapoto culture into his art, Rodney clinched a five-year contract as principal dancer with dance company Axis Dance Company in Oakland, California in 2007. But shortly after the contract lapsed, he found himself living on the streets, where he faced some of the most difficult times of his life.
“It was a day-to-day life that was extremely hard – accessing food and water, showering and toileting and navigating the homeless shelter,” he shared, in an interview with Stuff.co.nz. “I had to stay up all night and sleep during the day in the parks, otherwise you could get taken out or get your stuff stolen. I saw people get stabbed and killed, I witnessed shootings, even had guns pointed at my head.”
All these “trials”, however, made him the man he is today. Finally returning to New Zealand in 2015, Rodney, who is in his late-40s, created the acclaimed Meremere, a solo performance based on parts of his experiences in America.
“It’s therapeutic to revisit those emotions, feeling and memories. It has also helped building some clarity around why and what happened over there. From coming off the street, to where I am now, things keep getting better and I keep focusing on the blessings.”
Now, Rodney focuses not only on creating and performing, but also spends time as an advocate of stronger integration for people with diverse requirements and backgrounds, with particular interest in arts access.
His talent and leadership as a disabled performing artist have won him the Arts Access Artistic Achievement Award 2017 and the Attitude Artistic Achievement Award in 2016.
For more on Rodney Bell, read his responses to 12 questions from NZ Herald here.
Rodney Bell: Dancing his memories
Dancer Rodney goes from homeless to spotlight
Rodney Bell, a dancer in wheelchair, recognised for ‘exemplary’ career