No matter what your ability, you can take dance from spectator sport to emotional release and freedom of expression. Just as your wheelchair becomes an extension of your body, dance becomes an extension of your mind. As Martha Graham said, “Dance is the hidden language of the soul.”
Dancing on air
For Ray Leight, prior to his 1991 car accident at age 20, it took a “really hot girl” to get him out on the dance floor. Now Leight ballroom dances with his wheelchair four or five days a week, five to six hours a day.
Leight took up dancing in 1998 after meeting ballroom dancer Melinda Kremer. An instructor helped them choreograph using Leight’s wheelchair. Soon after, Leight and Kremer (herself married) were dancing a Viennese waltz for an audience of about 3,200 people at Philadelphia Festival, the city’s largest dance competition for nondisabled ballroom dancers.
“The place went crazy!” Leight says. “We had no idea how it was going to be taken. They put us on Limelight on Saturday night. It was received better than what we could have expected.” The response encouraged Leight and Kremer, who, along with Sandra Fortuna, created American DanceWheels Foundation, which now teaches American-style, wheelchair ballroom dancing. The international style of ballroom dancing popular in Europe and Asia — and performed at the Paralympics — is a refined style of dance where arms are held high, handholds are hard to break and the standing partner always leads, regardless of sex.
“With American style, I can go into any dance hall or lounge and ask a woman to dance,” Leight says. “If she knows how to foxtrot, waltz, rhumba, hustle or cha cha, we can dance. Anyone can learn those dances or I can quickly teach them. Most people in the U.S. aren’t going to know the international style of ballroom dance, and it limits who you can dance with.”
A woman who has learned American-style ballroom can choose any partner to dance, as long as they know some dance steps or can quickly learn. “The social aspects are huge,” Leight says. “It gives someone like me the chance to function in a nondisabled world, on their level.”
After a lifetime of dancing, Matt Clark, of Philadelphia, joined DanceWheels two years ago to learn how to dance with a partner. Until then, he’d go out to dance and dance alone in a corner.
“I’d approach a woman to dance but didn’t quite know how to physically connect,” he says.
Clark says ballroom dancing has taught him purely physical language, the give and take of dance. He now can go to clubs with people his age, and even though nobody is dancing the waltz, he can easily apply the connection and discipline he learned with the young women he meets. He says dancing forces people to reexamine how they move in a more nuanced way than they normally do.
“If I play wheelchair basketball, that means among other people in wheelchairs, I can play wheelchair basketball pretty well,” Clark says. “But, it has that qualifier on it. Any time you ballroom dance, you’re doing it with a nondisabled person, and it’s one-to-one. Even in clubs, I feel very comfortable dancing with anybody now. I have confidence. People aren’t thinking ‘Hey, he’s pretty good for a guy in a wheelchair,’ they’re thinking, ‘Hey, he’s a pretty good dancer.’”
Leight never expected to become a dancer but says now he gets in a “zone” when he dances, feeling the fluency of dance, graceful and sexy, while he twirls his partner and glides to the music. Leight and Kremer wrote the world’s first wheelchair ballroom and Latin dance curriculum for dance instructors. His goal is to get everyone with a disability into a dance studio and teach them to dance. “You get so much from socializing, you meet your husband or wife socializing, you get jobs from socializing,” he says.
Leight says international wheelchair ballroom dance is 35 years old with 5,000 registered wheelchair dancers in Europe and 8,000 in Asia. Most overseas competitions feature 150 to 300 wheelchair users and their nondisabled partners. He says the American version of wheelchair ballroom dancing showcases both dancers, not just the nondisabled dancer, and he expects it to grow in popularity.
About 12 years ago, Joyce and Shelly Cohen, of Omaha, Neb., were on a cruise ship eating breakfast when their waiter told them about a fellow waiter from the Netherlands who danced at the previous evening’s talent show with his dance partner using a wheelchair. The waiter and his dance partner danced international wheelchair ballroom competitively in Europe.
“We talked the waiter into giving us a dance lesson, and it was wonderful,” says Joyce. “He was expert at twirling me and I just felt like I was flying! Oh, it felt wonderful. I was so exhilarated and felt so happy to be out on the dance floor again.”
The Cohens were avid dancers until Joyce started using a wheelchair due to multiple sclerosis. Their desire to dance remained, but Joyce felt isolated sitting in her wheelchair. After they learned wheelchair dance, they checked around to find a dance group but couldn’t find any in their city. When some of their friends began taking ballroom dancing, Joyce says she became envious and called the dance instructor and convinced him to work with her. Now she and Shelly dance whenever they feel like it. “In a wheelchair, at times it’s harder to interact with people,” Cohen says. “But when you’re dancing you feel much more like you’re enjoying things like everybody else, you’re taking part in a group activity like everyone else. Plus the contact with a partner is very important.”
Before learning to dance with the wheelchair, Cohen’s husband would pick her up and hold her and sway to the music on the dance floor. Now they hold hands and twirl around while Joyce moves her manual wheelchair.
After sustaining a T10 spinal cord injury 12 years ago, Kari Krumweide, says the hardest thing about living with an SCI was watching her identical twin sister dance. “I’d think, that’s what I looked like when I could dance. That was really hard, and I’d sit and watch. But my friends or sister would say, ‘Come on, you’re dancing, too.’ So I learned I still feel it inside, I can still move with the music, move my hands, anything.”
Krumweide skis with the Rapid City, S.D., chapter of Ski for Light and says at the yearly ski event, everyone dances. “Of course we’ll have a couple of cocktails so that helps in the courage area! There’s usually more guys and I get a lot of them out dancing. It’s fun and exciting for everyone.”
Krumweide says she and her dad got pretty good at jitterbugging. She says the key is to know when you’re not going to make a turn and to let go of your partner and get hold of your wheels. Instead of holding hands, she says to entwine fingertips so letting go is easier.
“Sometimes at first when you go out there, you feel like, ‘Oh God, everyone’s going to watch,’ which they do! Ha!’” she laughs. “You’re the only one in the wheelchair out there dancing, and they’ll all be watching. You’re kind of self-conscious at first, but you get over it.”
If you don’t have a dance partner or if dancing makes you nervous, check out one of the wheelchair dance clubs throughout the U.S. or start one yourself. Many local dance instructors are willing to adapt instruction to wheelchair dancing, as in the case of square dance calling.
“There’s not much difference between wheelchair square dancing and nondisabled, other than we take more beats of music to complete a move,” explains Bruce Lowther, caller for the Salem, Ore., Silver Spinners wheelchair dance group. “For example, a ‘right and left through’ may take six beats of music for nondisabled dancers, and for wheelchair dancers it may take 10 beats.”
Lowther’s ex-wife, Janet Lowther, has been with the Silver Spinners for 15 years. She has been square dancing since she joined 4-H at 12. Janet and Bruce met in Oregon State University’s square dance club.
“Square dance is the state dance,” says Janet who was diagnosed with MS 25 years ago. “It just feels good to move to the music, and I think square dancing is good for you mentally because you have to remember all these moves. You have to think on the move.”
There are about 70 calls in square dance, including “box the gnat,” “slip the clutch,” “allemande left” and “pass the ocean.” Bruce says his group does at least 60 of them on a regular basis. “You can’t do-si-do with a wheelchair because of the sideways movement,” he explains. “But you can do most other moves in a 20-by-20 foot area.”
Janet says their group meets once a week in a hall donated by the local Lions’ Club. “It’s a social thing, we’ve all become very good friends. If for some reason we can’t use the hall, we’ll just go out to eat,” she says. The Silver Spinners do put on some performances but they mostly dance to have fun. All dancers use a wheelchair and for those who cannot propel their own chair, they are moved by a “motor” — a nondisabled person. Bruce volunteers his time and says most callers do the same for wheelchair dancing.
The Lowthers have a son, William. After their daughter, Carolyn, passed away in 2001, William moved out to California and the Lowthers separated. “I was suddenly on my own, trying to figure out what to do with my life,” Janet says. Then she saw Danceability perform at a local community college and joined the group.
“Carolyn and I were really close. Sometimes I feel she is still telling me what to do,” Lowther says. “She’ll give me a sign. Like with Danceability, I can hear her say, ‘Yeah, mom, we feel comfortable here.’”
Danceability, founded by Alito Alessi, is interpretative dance for wheelchair dancers with chapters worldwide. People can dance in or out of their chairs. “Sometimes I’ll twirl across the floor or weave back and forth or go backwards,” Lowther says. “I’ll try to stick an arm out or up or take a different pose than how I usually sit. Everyone comes up with his or her own routine and then we put it together as a dance. “Moving to music is a positive thing, emotionally, for anybody.”
American DanceWheels Foundation; P.O. Box 88, Bala-Cynwyd, PA 19004, 215/588-6671; www.americandancewheels.com; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Danceability, Joint Forces Dance Co.; P.O. Box 3686, Eugene, OR 97403; 541/342-3273, www.danceability.com; email@example.com.