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Disabled Venezuelans reach new heights through dance

In this Dec. 4, 2018 photo, AM Danza dancers perform in the contemporary dance production Ubuntu, at the Teresa Carreno Theater in Caracas, Venezuela. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- A stray bullet crushed Iraly Yanez's aspirations of becoming a professional dancer eight years ago as it ruptured two of her vertebrae and left her paraplegic.

But now the young Venezuelan dancer is pursuing her lifelong passion in a wheelchair -- and hoping to put her career back on track -- thanks to a contemporary dance company that is helping disabled people perform.

Caracas based AM Danza works with 50 young Venezuelans who are pursuing their passion for dance despite limitations like broken spines, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome or blindness.

Yanez joined the group three months ago and recently performed in her wheelchair in an emotional hour-long show that the dance troupe put together for its followers.

"This is the opportunity of a lifetime" Yanez, 34, said after the contemporary dance review, "Ubuntu," was held in one of the Venezuelan capital's most prestigious theatres. "I can't allow external issues to affect me any longer."

During the show, disabled dancers performed alongside fully abled professional dancers to demonstrate that art knows no barriers. Some members of the audience shed tears.

Dancers with limited mobility in their legs lifted their crutches in the air in unison. A dancer hoisted Yanez from her wheelchair and lifted her above her shoulders to perform complex moves.

"Dancing is all about passion" said AM Danza's director, Alexander Madriz. "You have to enjoy your possibilities and use your body to express emotions."

Madriz has worked for two decades with dancers who have disabilities and says that thanks to them he has learned that corporal expression has no limits.

"Not everything has to be the perfect lines and symmetry that you see in contemporary classical dance" he said.

Madriz, 47, said that the students' love for dance has helped them overcome the numerous obstacles faced by disabled people in Venezuela, where public transport is still mostly inaccessible to people on wheelchairs and ramps on sidewalks and public buildings are few and far between.

In addition, like everyone else in Venezuela, they have to cope with rampant medical shortages and hyperinflation that has devastated their incomes.

Yanez says that on weekdays she can spend up to three hours waiting for one of the few wheelchair-friendly buses that pass through her humble neighborhood in the suburbs of Caracas to take her to AM's dance studio.

But that doesn't seem to diminish her will to train.

She said that the dance company has allowed her to come to terms with the accident that changed her life and make feel like she can now "fly through the sky."

The ballerina was hit by a stray bullet on New Year's Eve in 2010 as she entered her home in a crime-ridden slum. That was the end of her dancing until she joined AM Danza in September.

As 2018 comes to a close, Yanez says she is looking forward to participating in more performances.

In the kitchen of her small apartment, she glanced at a drawing of dancers posted on the refrigerator by her 10-year-old niece, who also now practices ballet.

"She's one of the reasons that I am keeping up my struggle" Yanez said. "I see her, and I also see myself."

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