Formerly homeless paraplegic dancer tells his incredible life story through dance

A Te Kuiti man is telling his unique life story throughout the country - through the medium of dance.

Rodney Bell is paraplegic and spent time homeless in the USA, but draws from these experiences to empower others.

"It's quite therapeutic actually, to put it through a creative process and create a dance around it, a performance around it," Bell told Newshub.

Paralysed from the chest down following a motorbike accident 27 years ago, Bell learned to use his wheelchair - his new vessel as he puts it - and took up dancing.

"I feel more able now than I did when I was able-bodied. A lot of it is awareness around how unique our bodies are, and also just our perspectives on life now, you know?," he says.

He was so successful he was made the principal dancer of a California dance company.

"I took what I am as a Kiwi, and what I am as a Māori, took a bit of our culture from Aotearoa over there."

But when his contract ended he had no money to return home, and spent three years homeless on the streets of San Francisco. He credits his fitness from dancing with helping him survive.

"I thought, 'Oh well, I've got myself into this mess so I have to get myself out of it.' So I got stubborn about it, just went for it, bud. And when I think back now it's one of those things, 'Wow, I actually did that?'"

He finally raised enough funds to return home in 2015, and it was when carving a meremere - a Māori weapon - as a gift for his cousin that inspiration struck.

"I noticed all the shavings and all the woodchips everywhere, so the sacrifices the wood was going through reminded me of the sacrifices I had gone through to be in San Francisco."

So drawing from his experiences, his Ngāti Maniapoto heritage, and with the help of a collaborative crew of musicians, guest dancers and visual artists, he's taking his show Meremere on the road.

"The stories that I tell, they're my experience. But the audience has taken time out of their lives to share the air for 53 minutes. So I feel it's my responsibility to give them a good show."

Bell says his wheelchair gives him ability, and incorporates it into his performance.

"It's always just a common sense thing - person first. Then you can mention the wheelchair. But yeah, I honour my wheelchair."

Part of the nature of autobiography is that things constantly evolve, and Bell says even he can be overcome by what he's lived through.

"There's moments that those memories sink in and bring back those feelings. My senses get hypersensitised and I can actually shed a tear or two through the piece. It not only adds to the piece but reminds me how blessed I am to be back in Aotearoa."

Part of the tour has seen Bell performing Meremere in prisons.

"What an honour to be a pivot through art, to go there and share my story. And hopefully it can help others that are going through similar situations," he says.

Bell that hopes by displaying all the highlights and struggles he's packed into his life, he can empower audiences to have empathy and compassion for others.

You can buy tickets to Meremere here.