19 Jul 2018

Rodney Bell: Dancing a Duet with a wheelchair

From Nine To Noon, 10:07 am on 19 July 2018

Rodney Bell left Aotearoa to dance in the US - with his wheelchair - and spent years homeless in San Francisco between lavish tours in Hawaii or New York, and says the Māori perspective helped him get through. 

His award-winning solo performance Meremere tells the stories of his life. 

“I’m always revisiting memories … I look at it as a way of managing memories as well but taking them to a beautiful place and obviously under the artistic direction of Malia Johnson and Movement of the Human team. 

“Dance is mauri for me, you know, it’s just part of my breath and I felt like especially now - looking back at my dance journey - it’s helped me out in lots of ways. 

“It’s highlighted parts of my life in a beautiful sense."

Dance with a difference

Rodney grew up Ngāti Maniapoto in Te Kuiti and performed kapa haka and trained as a butcher, but things changed after a drink-driving motorcycle crash in 1991 paralysed him from the chest down.

The crash damaged his shoulder and upper arm, and he spent a year coming to terms with it while in a spinal unit.  

“I feel like it’s easy to jump into that medical model when you first have your accident, or, you know ongoing from your accident because your body - you’re just trying to heal things all the time."

He played wheelchair rugby and basketball - playing for the national team for a time - and says that built his strength, but Catherine Chappell of Touch Compass dance company saw dance in him, and he pays tribute to her, saying she has taken him to the place he is now.  

“I feel that what occurs with dance is - for me, anyway - when I go into rehearsal process, it’s fun, you know? It’s where I want to be, it’s not a job for me. 

“And the lifestyle of dancers is also health, you know, you have to really focus on your body and the welfare of others because there’s health and safety issues involved because of what you take in ... that’s down to food, that’s down to the way you think, you know. There’s lots of layers. 

“It’s kept me limber, it’s associated me with like-minded people … obviously it’s taken me to different parts of the world, so it’s part of the wind or part of the star ururangi I’d like to say, it’s blown me all over the place."

USA: Homeless and touring

He was nominated for numerous awards and won an Isadora Duncan Dance Award in 2008 for an ensemble performance with Sonsherée Giles titled To Color Me Different, choreographed by Alex Ketley.

It led him to Seattle, and dancing with the renowned Axis Dance company.

“Going through big changes then, I mentally thought ‘oh wow, I might as well go back over there and see what’s going on, you know?

“The company helped me to a degree … dance companies struggle in their own sense, trying to get funding and grants and stuff like that - so I was on a salary, basically the salary didn’t allow me to save much. 

“When the contract ended I had no savings, I had pretty much nothing. I didn’t want to put that pressure on anyone back in Aotearoa at that time, especially my family. 

“I knew [how] the homeless system there worked, so I thought well, maybe I could work around that, find my way through, dancing at the same time. So yeah, I took it on … what a journey. 

“In San Francisco they inject millions, if not a billion or so dollars, into the homeless system there in relationship to shelters, to advocacy support orgs that support homelessness, the free eats, the .. Catholic churches who have a lot of money involved where people can go and rest during the day. 

“So there’s all these other options there available if you need them." 

It was not easy, however. 

“They’re just continuously in the shelter system and it’s not easy in there ... it’s just yeah, hygiene-wise, just mortally it’s challenging, really challenging.

“I know when you’re homeless on the street - especially us as Kiwis - I want to say hello to everybody but you know if they don’t say hello back I sort of took it on like ‘oh wow, is it something about the way that I said it’, 

“You’ve got to remember that there’s a lot of homeless people out there that are sort of abusing the idea of kia ora, or ‘hello’, or greeting, and it affects people so the next homeless person they might meet might get the wrath of that. 

“And I got a lot of the wrath of that.  

“Obviously when you’re in survival mode you’ve got to draw on lots of distant layers, like how am I going to make money. When you’re on the street, you know, is water - you know, simple things,you go back to the basics and how are you going to survive. 

“People are like, on the streets trying to find ways of making money and the obvious is just to write something on a board and sit there in despair and obviously it’s the way that they’re feeling at that time and just beg for money, but I couldn’t do that.” 

He said he developed a dice game and played harmonica to get by, and continued to dance as well.

“It sort of actually fed this idea of hope in me as well because you know you’re socialising in a different way.  

“I was privileged to be dancing at the same time, so I had that great balance as well … I’d go and experience these dance companies and then I’d go to Hawaii and tour through Hawaii - through Hilo - and stuff and then I’d come back to the street. 

“Then I’d tour New York with Dandelion Dance Theatre and stay in these luxurious places and then I’d come back to the street. 

“It’s humbling too, I really enjoyed that balance … I was able to go back to the street feeling empowered by dance.” 


Rodney Bell performs in Meremere.

Rodney Bell performs in Meremere. Photo: YouTube / Fair use

Rodney spent three years living on the streets like that. He says his Māori culture and heritage kept him going in those dark times. 

“What actually kept me balanced was actually looking outside of myself all the time, looking on Tangaroa, the god of the sea, drawing on our Rangi-nui, our father sky, our manu - our birds - and looking at them in a peaceful way and also a spiritual way that also helped me keep balance as well.

“I used to sleep by the sea, and like I mentioned in Meremere that I used to relate to a one-legged seagull, and I just me keeping that frame of mind that we’re just part of these big elements that are going on around us didn’t make me think selfishly. 

“It took me to new levels as a Māori from Aotearoa as well, you know, like being able to represent not only myself over there but a culture and a country at the same time without even thinking about that. 

“Just when Once Were Warriors was hitting the world as well and so everyone was saying ‘Cook me some eggs’ and stuff, you know. So I was like ‘okay, I’m on the international front now and this is what to expect."

He says through Project Homeless Connect and Hand Up he was able to fundraise to buy a laptop, and was asked to appear in a documentary promoting their charity work. 

Through that he was able to make enough to fly home to Aotearoa in May last year, which was lucky timing considering he’d had a bladder operation which failed and means he is still looking for reconstructive surgery. 

He found he had to reconnect with his family, and his culture. 

“How to fit back in again, how to get back into Māori culture and my family, and just back into my body as well because I feel I was this vessel that was in survival mode for a long time when I came back. 

“I always talk about it in the whole idea of forgiving myself so others can forgive me too, because I was away for a long time … and it affected people in lots of different ways."

He says when he returned his brother offered him a piece of black maire, one of the world's hardest woods.

“I started carving for the birth that comes up from my cousin, and its become a taonga of transformation for me as well, back into Māoritanga, back into my family as well. 

“Coming home and then my brother offering me a piece of maerea was a gift in lots of different ways

“The catalyst was me doing this carving, telling these stories, the sacrifice the wood was going through, brought up these trials and tribulations that I had experienced in USA."

He says the reflection he gained from carving after his return to New Zealand, combined with conversations with Malia Johnson, led to Meremere

“I always relay this to people as well, like we all have these potentials, and sometimes .. it takes other people as the catalyst to bring those out."

Meremere has just finished, touring seven centres in New Zealand including in prisons and workshops.


It was preceded by Hurihuri, mixed traditional Pacific performance with urban street culture, and had him suspended in mid air, strapped into his wheelchair, and was performed at the Commonwealth Games and in Thailand.


Rodney has also now rehearsing a Matariki performance for The Cloud in Auckland.