Ali Stroker: First Wheelchair Performer on Broadway

Her movements are searingly sharp and her sense of rhythm is unerring. Her face is full of fierce determination, befitting the cast of the feisty, fevered youngsters in this musical. Her singing voice is strong with an edge of sassiness. If you follow only this one ensemble performer throughout the evening, you would know the whole arc of the story, its emotional peaks and valleys.

A scene from "Spring Awakening," Stroker singing down front, all photos © Joan Marcus

She is Ali Stroker, an unforgettable presence in the new production of Spring Awakening on Broadway. And though she says she’s danced all her life, she does that dancing from a wheelchair. Since the age of two, when she was in a car accident, she’s been paralyzed from the chest down. She acted and sang through high school in New Jersey and attended NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts in Drama.

Choreographer Spencer Liff uses Stroker’s talents brilliantly. She and her chair are often the keystone in his stage formations. The timing of when and where she glides adds to the sense of harmony, and when she uses her arms to push her own wheels, powering herself—willing herself—to another part of the stage, she embodies the struggle of the characters confined by society.

Stroker, seated

Through my brother-in-law, I got to meet Stroker after the show, which is produced by Deaf West Theatre. What she talked about was her admiration for the deaf actors in the show. With pride in her voice, she marveled at how they perform the intricate choreography—a speedy melding of American Sign Language with other gestures— without being able to hear the music. She mentioned that all the hearing cast members had to learn ASL, and that the preparation time took a year because “all the pieces of the puzzle” were so complicated.

She also talked about her time as a drama student at Tisch, where she took dance lessons in several genres like modern and jazz. She’s also appeared on TV in "Glee" and "Sesame Street."

On our way out, I could see her greet other guests with as much gusto as she greeted us. Onstage and off, Ali Stroker is someone who clearly enjoys life to the hilt. Her program bio says, “Ali believes any limitation can be an opportunity.” Amen.

 

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Clockwise from top left: Photo by Loreto Jamlig, Courtesy Ladies of Hip-Hop; Wikimedia Commons; Photo by Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy Pennsylvania Ballet; Natasha Razina, Courtesy State Academic Mariinsky Theatre; Photo by Will Mayer for Better Half Productions, Courtesy ABT

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