As the curtain rises on the stage, the lights illuminate seven dancers and an appreciative gasp rings out through the sell-out crowd in the theatre.
In the 73-year history of this eisteddfod, it’s the first time a group of wheelchair dancers has competed.
The audience claps and cheers throughout the performance before giving a standing ovation.
The group, Strictly Wheelchair, dances to the song This is Me, made popular by the Hugh Jackman film, The Greatest Showman.
Choreographer Pauline McMurtrie said the dancers picked the perfect song.
“It’s just so beautiful, it’s so inspirational and it really fits this group of people [and] this presentation of, ‘This is who I am and this is what I am capable of’,” she said.
It’s taken more than a year of work to prepare for this moment — performing among thousands of people at the Mackay Eisteddfod in north Queensland.
“Everyone is really ready for this,” Ms McMurtrie said.
The dancers spent months perfecting their moves and timing. (ABC Tropical North: Sophie Meixner)
“We’ve worked really hard and we’re getting pretty comfortable with performing.
“I’m really excited for them to be on the stage and be judged.”
The joy of dance
The chance to dance and perform has made a big impact on 19-year-old Lauren Carey’s life.
Her carer Kay Marchant said the rehearsals were something they both looked forward to.
“Lauren’s life is music and dancing and we just love it,” she said.
“It’s been a wonderful thing for people to realise that disabilities don’t have barriers any more.”
Each time the music starts, a large smile spreads across Lauren’s face.
Lauren Carey and Kay Marchant love the challenge and social aspects of the dance group. (ABC Tropical North: Melissa Maddison)
“Sometimes we can’t go out and we can’t do things,” Ms Marchant said.
“For Lauren to come here … it brightens her day. To come here and see her friends and do the dancing, it just melts your heart, it really does.”
Maddison Hunt has been part of the dance group for three years and said it was something she really enjoyed.
“I love dressing up and I love dancing, it makes me happy,” she said.
“I like that I can now do more things because of dancing.”
As well as being fun, and providing social connection, the dancing has helped participants improve their mobility.
“They really bring their all to this and they really extend themselves,” Ms McMurtrie said.
“Recently I’ve seen people do movements they haven’t done before.
“Things like stretching, bringing their arms together in a way I haven’t seen them do before.”
Peter Sumpter from Sporting Wheelies said the improvement had not happened by chance.
The group rehearses before its performance at the eisteddfod. (ABC Tropical North: Sophie Meixner)
“This year we’ve quite deliberately brought in a stretch session at the start,” he said.
“Their range has improved, and their fine motor skills as well.
“It’s a great thing for them to extend their boundaries through this, which is fun and challenging.”
Last year Strictly Wheelchair was invited to perform a showcase, or a ‘curtain raiser’, for this section of the eisteddfod.
This year they are competing.
“We’ve had so much recognition in the past 12 months since that performance,” Mr Sumpter said.
“I’ve been stopped in the street by people saying: ‘I hope you’re at the eisteddfod again, because I’ve bought my tickets’.
“And it’s not just once, I’m talking a couple of dozen times.”
The group places second in their section, with the adjudicator saying the performance brought her to tears.
When a video of the performance is shared online, it leads to international enquiries.
“I’ve had phone calls from California and Florida about how we got started,” he said.
The puzzle of creating a wheelchair routine
In the group there is a mix of people who use self-propelled chairs and motorised chairs, and those who rely on carers to move them around the stage.
Ms McMurtrie said she was often met with confused looks when she told people about her role as a wheelchair dance choreographer.
“There are aspects of dancing in a wheelchair that are different to dancing with your feet and some things where you have more freedom and some where it’s a bit trickier,” she said.
“It’s like working out a puzzle, you know there’s a right answer, but you just have keep changing things around to get the right sort of pattern.
“It’s just a different way of dancing.”
Challenging perceptions about disability
As well as giving the dancers a chance to try something new and build new friendships, the group is helping to challenge ideas about disability.
“It helps show they are indeed valuable functioning citizens and they all have something to offer,” Mr Sumpter said.
“And if you take the time to talk to them you’ll find they each have something to offer.”
For Ms McMurtrie, the group is also about bringing joy to lives, including her own.
“It’s a lovely group and we have a really fun time,” she said.
“I’ve been involved for 12 years and I don’t think there has ever been a week where I haven’t enjoyed it.
“I get a real buzz from this.”