New Set of Wheels Making History in Detroit
By: Cheryl Angelelli, PLY
Detroit is called the Motor City, nicknamed for being the historic birthplace of the automotive industry. However, it’s a different set of wheels now making history in Detroit, as it recently hosted the very first wheelchair ballroom dance competition in the U.S. on July 16.
The inaugural event, presented by the RIM Foundation’s Dance Mobility program, saw more than a dozen dancers with disabilities from across the U.S. participate.
Wheelchair ballroom dancing, called Para Dance Sport, originated in Sweden in 1968. From there the sport grew in popularity and in 1977, the first international Para Dance Sport competition was held. Today, it is practiced in nearly 40 countries, however it has been slow to grow in popularity in North America.
After retiring from Para Swimming in 2014, I was looking for a new competitive adapted sport, and fell in love with wheelchair ballroom dancing. I soon realized the opportunities for others to experience Para Dance Sport in the U.S. were limited, so in 2015, I co-founded Dance Mobility, along with Evan Mountain, owner, Fred Astaire Dance Studios-Michigan Region. Thanks to a grant I received from the Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan Foundation (RIMF), Dance Mobility is a non-profit program that provides free adapted ballroom dance group lessons to persons who use a wheelchair or have other physical challenges.
During the past 7 years, along with the RIM Foundation’s support, we have taught hundreds of students with disabilities to ballroom dance, purchased specialized wheelchairs for dancing and awarded over $20K in scholarships to dancers with disabilities to help further their skills in ballroom dancing.
What was missing however, was an opportunity for these dancers to compete amongst their peers on American soil. My dance partner Tamerlan Gadirov and I have been competing together nationally and internationally since 2016. When we compete in the United States, it is always against standing couples. In the past, if we wanted to compete against other wheelchairs users, we had to go to Europe or Canada where these types of competitions were being held. That is, until now.
As I entered the competition venue on July 16, I cannot begin to describe my excitement and pride at looking around the room and seeing others who look like me, who understand my challenges and strengths, and simply yearn for the opportunities offered others. Representation matters, inclusion matters.
“It was such a cool opportunity to grow as a dancer in a way that I otherwise wouldn’t have had among my standing peers,”, said 14-year-old, Eve Dahl, from Burlington, Wisconsin. “I am so excited to have been a part of the first Para Dance competition in the U.S., knowing it will pave the way for future Para Dancers.”
Dancers perhaps like Robin Wooten who heard about the competition and came to watch. Wooten used to ballroom dance before she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. “It’s amazing,” Wooten told a reporter as she wiped away tears. “I don’t know them personally, but I swear they’re my family because they share my same struggle. My tears are happy tears.”
Many of the dancers are part of a social media group I started to share resources and connect people interested in Para Dance. The competition in Detroit was the first time many of them met in person.
“My favorite part of the competition was the camaraderie I felt. We all cheered each other on. I now have many new friends,” said Lauren Arena from Queens, New York.
Although many of the dancers met as strangers they were united in their joy and passion for dancing.
“I love to dance because it is unlike anything I do on a typical day. It gives movement to a wheelchair user that cannot be recreated in a typical setting, said Martha Siravo from Madison, Wisconsin. “It’s an honor and a blessing to be a representation of how my disability does not define or restrict my abilities through dance, rather it enhances and celebrates them,” she added.
It is amazing to see the impact and power Dance Mobility has to change people’s lives. I have lots of awards, Paralympic medals, even world records in Para Swimming, but co-founding Dance Mobility is one of my proudest achievements.
To help continue to grow Dance Mobility and Para Dance Sport movement in the U.S., Tamerlan and I have been taking the program we designed in Michigan and launching it in other states, such as Wisconsin, Indiana, Arizona and Texas.
To learn more about Dance Mobility, visit dancemobility.org