Enabled Life

Just Dancing

Wheelchair Dancing's Appeal Is Integration, Joy of Movement

Wheelchair ballroom dancersIn 2005, Tamara Mena, her boyfriend Patrick and some friends took a trip from San Diego, Calif., to the beaches of Rosarito in Mexico. At the border, Tamara and Patrick grabbed a taxi. They were trying to be safe and avoid drinking and driving. But when they reached the toll road, something went terribly wrong.

A saddled horse fell on top of the taxi, crushing it down to seat level. Patrick pushed Tamara down, which saved her life, but the horse broke Tamara’s back. The taxi driver and Patrick didn’t make it.

During and after her recovery, Tamara was grateful to be alive and determined not to let her injury—T2-T3 paraplegia—stop her from achieving her dreams. But there was one aspect of her former life that she could not bring herself to do: dance.

“In so many ways I was like the warrior after my injury, but this one aspect I really didn’t know how to do it,” she says.

Although Tamara wasn’t a trained dancer, she grew up dancing. Salsa and Latin dancing were a big part of her family’s traditions. In fact, she credits dancing for helping her become more outgoing as a child. Still, after her injury, Tamara couldn’t find the joy for dancing that she once had.

About a year and a half after her injury, Tamara attended a camp for children with physical disabilities. During one of the social events, her peers were dancing, and Tamara felt herself becoming very uncomfortable—very much the opposite of how she had been before her injury.

“I remember this guy. He had been injured for longer and was dragging me out to the dance floor, and I remember I was terrified,” Tamara recalls. “And I was like, ‘I don’t know how to wheelchair dance. I don’t know how to do this.’

“And I remember he said, ‘There’s no such thing as wheelchair dancing. We’re just dancing.’ ”

Getting Started

When Melinda Kremer, executive director of American DanceWheels Foundation in Bala Cynwyd, Pa., first looked into wheelchair ballroom and Latin dancing for her daughter who had become disabled, she had no idea that the style of dancing had been going on in Europe and Asia for 25 years.

“In the United States, there was nothing, absolutely nothing,” Kremer, who is a ballroom dancer, says.

And so she reached out to a ballroom dance teacher who was a close friend. This friend couldn’t see any reason that a person in a wheelchair wouldn’t be able to dance. And so Kremer’s daughter partnered with another able-bodied dancer, and they set to work creating steps.

Kremer says she was looking for an activity that was more inclusive than the disability-only organizations that her daughter had been participating in. “From my perspective, it was something mainstream, something that she would be able to do and she would be able to do with the opposite sex. And that’s been the draw for most people that have done this. They just want to go to a club or to a wedding and dance with people, and they want the steps to be recognizable.”

Of course, some modifications had to be made for wheelchairs because, for example, a wheelchair can’t move side to side.

As they continued to work, the duo began to perform demonstrations because so that others could see what they were doing.

People were really interested in the demonstrations, and despite the differences in stories and disabilities that Kremer heard, each person had the same prevailing question: Was it possible for them to do what the dancers were doing?

Can You Move?

In wheelchair dancing, the level of disability doesn’t matter. The main criteria are that

  • a person be cognitively able to understand directions and
  • a person be physically able to move their own wheelchairs. (Kremer says she doesn’t care how a person moves their chair, as long as they can do it without assistance.)
  • “We have people that are quadriplegic that use their head and that really have high-level disabilities. And then we have other people that are extremely athletic and have very low injuries using a manual wheelchair, and they’re using their arms to move their wheelchairs—and everything in between,” Kremer says.

    Dancing Wheels dancers

    Dale Dong Photography for Dancing Wheels

    In fact, the ability to move artistically has much more to do with artistry than it does with a physical ability to move. And training is everything.

    “The means by which a wheelchair user participates and succeeds in dance is somewhat the same as a nondisabled dancer. It takes a lot of time and study and development of technique,” says Mary Verdi-Fletcher, president of The Dancing Wheels Company & School in Cleveland, Ohio, which offers classes from contemporary to hip hop. “The quality and stage presence of the dancer also impacts greatly on their artistry and ability to perform well. We have had company members that are classified as quadriplegics and still perform at the highest artistic level.”

    At American DanceWheels, dance teachers try to help students find adaptions to suit their physical abilities while keeping as true to form as possible.

    “We want this to be real dancing,” Kremer says. “So we are always making adaptions that will keep the integrity of the program and the dancing at the highest level and yet the person is still able to do it.”

    To be successful, a dancer must learn to move their chair in a fluid, rhythmic, coordinated fashion, Kremer says. She says that sometimes the wheelchair can influence someone’s ability to dance. For example, a slower chair or one that’s poorly fitted to the individual could make it harder for a person to dance.

    Learning the Steps

    Tamara Mena

    Tamara Mena dances with Basilio Diego at an American DanceWheels event in Northern California. The competition was held at Cheryl Burke Dance Studio in Mountain View, Calif. Photo courtesy of Tamara Mena.

    Tamara learned a lot in the class she took at American DanceWheels, especially how to adjust her movements to fit her abilities.

    Find out more about Tamara Mena here.

    “I would tell her (Melinda), ‘Well, I don’t really have good tone, and I struggle with these types of movement or x, y, z.’ And she would say, ‘That’s okay … if you can’t do it this way, then you do it this way and you move your shoulders like so,’ ” Tamara says. “We really underestimate how much you can show that you are dancing regardless of what you have.”

    One of the things Tamara learned is that just because she couldn’t do a movement the same as others didn’t mean she couldn’t move. She just had to move differently. Tamara says that although it might be a struggle, the best advice she has for new dancers is to accept what they have and work with.

    One of the adaptive devices that Tamara resisted at first was a belt that would bind her to her chair. Because Tamara doesn’t have a lot of trunk control and stability, Melinda though the adjustment would help her achieve more movement. Still, Tamara was unsure. She was afraid of how the belt would make her look while she was dancing, but one day she decided to try it out.

    “It allowed me to move what I do have more freely, and it looks more natural. Even though I think that I’m limiting myself, I’m actually not. I’m actually opening myself up. I’m moving more than I would’ve if I didn’t use that belt,” Tamara says.

    The Payoff

    When Verdi-Fletcher thinks back on some of her most inspiring students, one man comes to mind first, a former construction worker in his 50s who broke his back in a car accident. A deer hit his car, and he laid over his children to protect them.

    “He came to us as a student. He was a quadriplegic but was wondering if the movement could help him gain physical strength, and since he liked music, thought that he might enjoy it for recreational purposes,” Verdi-Fletcher says. “Turns out not only did he gain a great deal of strength from the classes, he loved it so much that he joined the company as an apprentice and later gained full-time employment as a company member. His artistry shined through, and everyone commented on his command of the stage.”

    Wheelchair dancing offers fun, social interactions and a creative outlet—and it might just lead you down roads you never expected.

    So what’s stopping you?

    “The main underlying assumption is that people in a wheelchair cannot dance,” Tamara says. But she begs to differ. If you’re unsure, just get out there and watch people do it.

    “To be working with somebody in that kind of intimate way is great for everyone, and certainly this is something that people with disabilities don’t often get to do with the population of people considered to be ‘able-bodied.’ They’re doing their part, and the standing person is doing their part,” Kremer says. “You don’t have to convince anybody that you’re just like them. All you have to do is dance with them, and they get it.”

    Watch It!

    American Dance Wheels Foundation video gallery

    AXIS Dance Company performs on “So You Think You Can Dance” in 2011

    Dancing Wheels video gallery


    Contact these organizations to learn about dance classes in or near your community.

    American DanceWheels Foundation – Bala Cynwyd, Pa.

    AXIS Dance Company – Oakland, Calif.

    Dancing Wheels – Cleveland, Ohio

    Wheelchair Dancers.org

    Check out our crossword puzzle on wheelchair dancing.

    About the Author

    Elisha Bury is the editor of The Mobility Project. She can be reached at consumer@hmemediagroup.com.