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You Think You Can Dance?

Reprinted from SNS May 2017

Wheelchair dancing offers a physical workout and provides fun, but the sport hopes to grow in the United States

From time to time, Cheryl Angelelli will coax some tough, competitive wheelchair basketball players to come in and check out a wheelchair dance class in suburban Detroit. If nothing else, they think, they can have a laugh, and then get back to their “real” sports. And then they get a serious workout.

“They’re just amazed at how sore their arms are the next day,” Angelelli says. 

Angelelli knows a thing or two about serious workouts. 

She retired in 2013 after a successful Paralympic swimming career, during which she won two bronze medals at the 2004 Athens Paralympic Games and two silvers at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics — when she was nearly 40 years old.

But Angelelli also missed dancing after a swimming accident as a teen left her a quadriplegic. When she discovered wheelchair ballroom dancing, she knew she’d try it after ending her swimming career. It wasn’t easy, though. 

Few schools offer training for wheelchair dancers, and finding partners was hard.  

“Nobody really knew how to work with me or even begin to do choreography,” she says.

When a Fred Astaire Dance Studio near Detroit offered a class, she was the only one who called to sign up. And like the wheelchair basketball players she’s worked with since, Angelelli was a bit surprised at the physicality of sport ballroom dancing, or Para Dance Sport.

“Your arms get a pretty good workout,” she says. “I’m a pretty high-level quadriplegic, so it’s challenging.” 

Competition Styles

Competitive wheelchair dancers can compete combi style, in which they dance with a standing, able-bodied partner, as part of a duo with another wheelchair user, or as a single, dancing alone. There are also formation dances, which involve multiple wheelchair users dancing in formation as a team.

In partner dancing, competitors dance standards such as waltzes, tangos and foxtrots, but the dances can also include Latin, ballet, contemporary, salsa and a variety of other styles. The couple’s movements should be coordinated, with no partner appearing dominant.

Competitors in all types of wheelchair dancing are also judged on how well they move in time to the music. 

The dancers aren’t just judged on how rhythmically they move their arms and upper body but also whether they can move their wheelchair rhythmically. Overall wheelchair control — when it should be stopped, it should be stopped, for example — is important, as well. 

In competitions involving a partner, judging is based primarily on the performance of the wheelchair dancer, but the degree to which the two dancers are integrated and show cohesion and harmony in their dancing is important. 

Dancers’ choreography, presentation and charisma are also judged.  

Getting Americans Involved

However, the bigger challenge may be getting more Americans involved. Angelelli and her current partner, Tamerlan Gadirov, were recently the only competitors from the U.S. at a competition in Canada (they won) and in the past have entered able-bodied dance competitions (they won one of those, too). 

Angelelli and Gadirov would like to see the sport grow, as would the international organization that governs the sport, which started in Sweden in the 1960s.

“We are trying to develop and promote the sport in the U.S., Canada and Latin America, as Para Dance is still considered a European sport,” says Camila Rodrigues, manager for World Para Dance Sport. 

The organization, which is based in Germany, has had some difficulty promoting the sport in the United States, however, because it has had trouble finding enough support on the ground here to do outreach to dance schools and groups working with dance students in wheelchairs.

“We are trying to spot groups willing to compete internationally,” Rodrigues says in an interview by email. “We believe the sport is not known in the U.S. (and) a lot of people might not know that they can actually travel the world competing and representing their country.”

But there’s a bigger problem than just awareness, says Melinda Kremer, the founder of American DanceWheels Foundation, which provides opportunities for school kids in the Philadelphia area to learn wheelchair dancing. Kremer has created a syllabus for dance teachers to work with those in chairs and offers lessons to teachers around the country via Skype.

“It’s about the money,” Kremer says. “We don’t have the money.” 

The sport and even recreational wheelchair dancing can be very expensive. Serious dancers use special chairs with a third wheel in the back, similar to chairs used in other sports requiring high degrees of mobility. The chairs can cost thousands of dollars. There’s also the cost of lessons, which can run into hundreds of dollars.

Kremer says some European and Asian governments have provided funding for wheelchair dance at various levels, but public and private funding of wheelchair dance in the United States has been hard to come by. She says that, more than the lack of interest, is the reason it’s hard to find serious, competitive dancers.

“There are lots of people that would love to dance,” Kremer says. “They cannot because they don’t have the money.”

Rodrigues cites another difficulty that compounds the funding problem.

“One of the obstacles the sport faces regarding its promotion is the fact that the sport is not in the [U.S.] Paralympic Games program,” Rodrigues says. “This does not help with visibility, promotion and growth, as many sports get financial support only when they are part of the Games.” 

Rodrigues says the organization isn’t aware of any Para Dance Sport federation in the U.S. working on promotion and development of the sport, but there are in several European and Asian countries.

Serious Training

Training takes passion, time and a little bit of soul, too. Angelelli says anyone can enjoy the basics of wheelchair ballroom dancing and can have fun doing it. But for competitors, the physicality can be more challenging than people think. 

“I approach dancing as an athlete,” Angelelli says. “It’s different muscles than I used with swimming … It’s a lot more core and balance and upper body. But coming from an athletic background has definitely helped.”

Her main training is dancing itself. Angelelli tries to dance two to three times a week, not counting when she’s helping teach other dancers. 

There’s also a learning curve regarding the technical aspects of dance — what dance moves in wheelchairs are supposed to look like to be judged well. That’s where having an experienced trainer comes in handy, as does watching lots of videos, which is how Angelelli got started.

Working with Fred Astaire Dance Studios and the Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan Foundation, Angelelli is involved in a dance mobility program aimed at introducing wheelchair users to ballroom dance and competitive Para Dance Sport. She hopes the program can raise funding to provide chairs and scholarships for private lessons and to help other dance studios around the country start programs, which includes helping them find or train teachers who can work with wheelchair users. 

Angelelli reiterates that dancing doesn’t require the use of legs because it starts in the soul. 

“I want to share that joy and that passion,” she says. 

An able-bodied ballroom dancer who started American DanceWheels after her daughter was diagnosed with Friedreich’s ataxia, Kremer was looking for a way to continue to dance. She’s more concerned with growing opportunities for wheelchair dancing for social reasons — that plenty of people who don’t want to compete would benefit socially from learning to dance.

But Kremer acknowledges growth is also the key to finding competitively inclined dancers.

“I’m a performer. I love the idea of performing,” says Kremer, who has competed in ballroom dancing competitions with a wheelchair partner. “But you have to start somewhere. We need to bring people with disabilities to dancing [for social reasons]. And then out of this social community, that’s where the [sport] growth will come.”

Angelelli hopes to continue to compete and represent the United States at high-level dance competitions — and the competitive athlete in her makes her want to win. 

“But the bigger victory is really exposing people to the sport and letting people see what people with disabilities can do,” she says.

And her experience in helping teach has convinced her the sport can grow. 

“Our classes are packed every month,” Angelelli says. “I thought it was going to be all women, but sometimes we have more men than women. Everybody loves to dance.”


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