ABC7 Star: Dancers with and without disabilities perform side-by-side

OAKLAND, Calif. (KGO) -- To watch dancers with Axis Dance Company is to see a frenzy of metal and movement; dancers with and without disabilities perform side-by-side.

"That's really where the magic and the beauty and the power is, I believe it's that combination of bringing people with huge differences together," said Judith Smith, one of the founders of Axis and the former creative director of thirty years.

If what happens on stage is magic, then Judith Smith is surely the magician. She took a moonshot idea and turned it into the largest integrated dance company in the country, based right here in Oakland.

Like many of her dancers, she has also been rising to challenges her whole life. Growing up in Colorado, she was a champion equestrian.

"That was my first passion," said Smith. "I loved it, I really, really loved jumping horses, and I loved winning."

Winning, no less, with what she calls a $375 "cast-off" horse against thoroughbreds. Something about the odds inspired her to work harder, jump higher. Until she couldn't.

"I remember the steering wheel whipping out of my hand and I remember lying on the ground," said Smith.

It was a car, not a horse, that would leave her paralyzed at 17. Smith remembers seeing her father in the emergency room, and telling him that she was afraid she would never walk again.

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"It's hard on the whole family... my mother never really recovered from it and she actually died three years after my accident," said Smith. "I had no idea what I was going to do with my life... I certainly did not want to live in a disabled body."

It was both the move to the Bay Area, and movement itself that allowed her to connect to her body again.
Smith recalls meeting other people with disabilities here: "they were having lives and working, and going to school and having relationships and building careers for themselves."

Through discovering contact improvisation, she learned how to be in her body again. It was a journey that would eventually lead her to become one of the founding members of Axis, and then its creative director for decades. Her old determination was applied to a new purpose. Despite naysayers, she successfully attracted some of the best choreographers to work with the company. The company is heavily involved in outreach, performs for thousands every year and has been seen by millions on popular television dance programs.

"Naiveté is a really great thing because it allows you to do things that, in your right mind, if you were really thinking about it, you would never dare," said Smith.

After three decades at the helm of Axis, Smith just recently decided to retire, handing the creative reigns to accomplished choreographer Marc Brew. In this time she's helped to create countless opportunities and pieces of art, but perhaps there is no company dancer more effusively grateful than Jean Pablo Crespo Rodriguez of Puerto Rico, affectionately known by his fellow dancers as "Janpi."

"I want to say thank you, so, so much...You know, I can't ask for more right now in my life," said Janpi.

He was just a 1-year-old when he became paralyzed. A neighbor was babysitting him at the time, and didn't see him behind her.

"I was following her, she put the car in reverse and she hit me by accident," said Janpi.

He grew up in a wheelchair, but still decided to chase a dream that seemed nothing short of impossible, to become a professional dancer. He still remembers holding his acceptance letter to Axis.

"I can say Axis gave me a lot of hope. After they wrote me, the hurricane came to my island," said Janpi.

When the storm hit in September, Janpi says he huddled in the bathroom with his family and dog for eight hours... praying they would survive, singing to let each other know they were still ok. His eyes fill with tears at the memory.

"I was in my house without power and electricity and I was just thinking, 'I'm going in January to work with Axis so I'm going to be very strong.'"

Now, he feels blessed to have the opportunity to dance for his family and his country. And when you see him perform along with all of the other dancers, it's certainly hard to look away. Smith says, that's exactly the point.

"There's this whole thing about staring at disabled people... 'it's not polite to stare.' But when you're given permission to really look, and look deeply, you see people working together and all of a sudden it becomes about the movement," said Smith. "We become part of humanity."

Smith continues to advocate fiercely for her dancers and for visibility for the disabled community. We see her, and thank her for her vision, passion and as she calls it, her "genetic stubbornness." We are very proud to recognize Judith Smith as an ABC7 Star.

To find out more about Axis, click here.
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