Waltzing On Wheels
Date added to ADN: Sat,
May 01, 2004
Originally Published: Sat, May 01, 2004
by Christine Zona
(About the Author)
If you think being disabled means you can't waltz, you better think again. Ray Leight and Melinda Kremer have been performing at many ballroom competitions over the past several years. Ray is in a wheelchair and Melinda is not, and they always receive a rousing standing ovation from the awe-struck audiences. Ray and Melinda aren't the only ones. Along with Sandra Fortuna, they have founded the organization American Dance Wheels to bring the disabled population into the experience of social dancing. They run seminars and teachers' workshops and hope to present dance courses in at least one high school and one university this fall.
American Dance Wheels has presented solo and formation demonstrations at rehabilitations centers, schools, and medical and fitness conventions as well as at dance competitions, to enhance public awareness of this great social activity. Sandra Fortuna is their instructor and she brings to the organization her experience as a studio owner, adjudicator and competition organizer. She has experimented, practiced and given much of her time to creating a syllabus and teaching manual for dancing in wheelchairs. Her main focus is on social dancing and showing that it is not limited to people with two good legs.
Tell me about your background.
I asked for a birthday present when I was 9 – I wanted to take dance lessons. I progressed to the point when I was a teenager that I danced with the Philadelphia Opera Ballet, performing in operas in Hartford, Washington, Philadelphia, and in Florida with some very important people, although I didn't realize it then, people like Richard Tucker and Anna Moffo.
How did you get involved in ballroom?
I went to college as a dance major in the late sixties. When I graduated, I went to the local Arthur Murray. I wanted to discover something new about dancing, and learn ballroom dancing.
Did you compete professionally?
I competed in the 70's and maybe to '80, '81, '82, something like that. We danced international Latin and American style, which was combined smooth and rhythm in those days.
Who was your partner?
My first partner was Gene Russo, who came from Pittsburgh to work at the Arthur Murray Studio in Philadelphia. At that time, Vernon Brock and Beverly Donahue were also teachers there. One of the other teachers, Warren Cooper, suggested to Gene that he should partner with me. I had been ballroom dancing for about two months. We danced at a competition in Atlantic City and we made everything up. There was nobody around to get training from, and we didn't have any money anyway, so we just did our own thing. We danced in the seventies on and off, and we were always in the finals. Then I danced with Darryl Calloway for a year or two – we did American Style and Theater Arts and International Latin.
How did you get started teaching wheelchair dancing?
Ray Leight and Melinda Kremer wanted to get some proper dance lessons, to clean up what they were doing... make it more rhythmic, more exciting, improve the connections, make their work more musical. They wanted to look as professional as possible. The manager of a nightclub in Atlantic City asked them to be part of the professional show. That's how it started, but I had seen Ray dance an exhibition about a year or two prior to that at my competition, Philadelphia Festival DanceSport Championships. A friend of mine came to me and asked, "How do you feel about letting me dance an exhibition with a man in a wheelchair at the competition?" I had to say, "Yes, of course, that sounds interesting." They came, they danced, they opened our eyes, and they made the whole room cry.
Do you know how they started dancing to begin with?
Ray went with a friend, I don't even know if it was Melinda, to pick up a friend at a dance studio. The teacher there said, "Why don't you come in and dance?" And he said, "Look at me, I'm in a wheelchair, I can't dance," she said, "Sure you can." She is a very creative woman... lots of neat ideas. So he went in and she tried to teach him how to do the dances. He just took it from there.
When they came to me, they needed their stuff to be sorted out. The first thing we did was to teach Ray rhythm and how to express normal dance rhythms in the chair. It can be very difficult to do, of course. The chair either stops or goes, and it only goes forward and back or turn right or turn left. So we had to learn how to use the hands on the wheels to create rhythm and straighten out his connections. He's a strong guy and he can make the girl go any direction but it looked very rough and forced. When they found a special song that they liked a lot, we did choreography to the song. They performed that all over the place. They would always get a standing ovation, but that's not really where we want wheelchair dancing to go. It shouldn't just be for performance.
Wheelchair dancing should be a social vehicle for people that are disabled, and it should be something that's normal looking. It shouldn't look fantastic. It shouldn't look like the girl has to stand up on the boy's chair. What we're trying to do now is set the dances for wheelchair dancers to be as similar as possible to the dances that we learn for social dancing. When people see someone doing a foxtrot in a wheelchair, they can recognize the patterns and say to themselves, "I could do that with that person."
How were you able to try to teach those rhythms, since you're not in a wheelchair? How did you know what to do?
You don't! You make it up as you go along! And you figure it out. It's been a path of discovery. You start with the able-bodied partner's part and you experiment. I spend a lot of time in the chair as a lady and as a man. What I haven't done is dance in a motorized chair.
There are actually 12 parts. There's the man in a manual chair, there's a lady in a manual chair; there's a man in a motorized chair with a right-hand joystick, there's a man in a motorized chair with a left-hand joystick, a lady in a motorized chair with a right-hand joystick, and a lady in a motorized chair with a left-hand joystick. Then there are all their partners. So it's actually 12 parts, and it's difficult to figure out all the particulars. We wrote a technique book and the chart has 11 columns. It's not what we're used to. We're used to four or five. Each column is very, very important. If one is missing, it's okay, but if you're missing two or three columns of technique the whole thing falls apart. It's a little complicated, because of how the wheels work.
Has anyone ever done anything like this before?
There are five thousand registered wheelchair competitors in Europe, and I think there are about three or four times that many in Japan. It's a very, very popular activity for disabled persons, but not in the United States. Jennifer Booth had a wheelchair event at her competition, the Colorado Star Ball, two years ago and there were four or five couples. Ray and Melinda were one of the couples. Ray and Melinda won all the dances. One of the couples that they beat went to Europe a year or so later and competed against 150 European couples, and they were fourth. And Ray beat them his first time out. Ray and Melinda and I have decided we're going to do social style, not competitive international style, wheelchair dancing. It's more practical, it's going to have more use, and eventually, we'll do international style too.
We want to do things with our couples that more people are going to be able to learn and do and reproduce. We want the work to be compatible with what people learn when they go to a dance school to learn to dance for a social function or a wedding.
First we need to have a group of people that can get up and dance. And as far as I can tell, there isn't a group of people that can do that. We have six couples at our place, and there was a place in Colorado, but I don't know if it's continuing.
There are some country western dancers but I think what they do is not that normal. They have ideas that the arms have to stay perfectly stiff and straight, and the hands should be closed at all times. To me, that doesn't make good sense. You need to have mobility with your arms. Your arms need to have give and take. A modified frame, similar to the one that able-bodied dancers use, has to relate to the chair and both partners. And you need to have give and take with your partner and be able to change the position of your hands. Because the way you change your hands is going to become part of the rhythm. It's definitely part of the communication of the dance.
We experiment with things. We have four or five steps in each of the dances. We do fox trot, waltz, tango, cha cha, rumba, salsa, and hustle. The tango is very adaptable to American style. We do it in an 8 count phrase, so everything goes, slow, slow, quick, quick, slow. And at the level we're at, we need to stay with that, because if both partners know what the rhythm is going to be, it's easier for them to stay together. As you can imagine, it's difficult.
It's like ice dancers. Sometimes they have a difficult time expressing the rhythm of the dance. They can do the moves, cover some space, show speed and rotation, and the results of a good connection, but they very often are unable to show rhythm through their body, or with their weight changes. They're more apt to just travel and pick up their foot to show rhythm. The same thing happens in the chair. It's very easy to just start traveling and going around in circles, and that's not really where it should go, I don't think. You should drop the things that happen very automatically and make an effort to make movements mimic social dance movements. This way when a disabled person is in a social environment, they have the opportunity to interact with the rest of us. And that's good for the rest of us too, because it's very eye opening.
Most people are like me, we go in the mall and see somebody in a wheelchair and we ignore them. When we go to a restaurant together, the waitress will always ask Melinda or I what Ray wants, as though he's deaf and stupid, along with being disabled. It's not true, and it's funny, we laugh all the time, and say, "He can order for himself." It's ridiculous! And we're all that way. It's really opened my eyes.
Do they learn differently? Do they get more discouraged?
They deal with more crap. They don't get discouraged. They're used to it. They're achievers. I'm not sure if the people we deal with are the average person that would be in a wheelchair, or maybe they just seem exceptional to me because I've gotten to know them. Under ordinary circumstances, I probably wouldn't have bothered.
Rob is one of the top wheelchair archers in the country, and he was actually invited to be on the able-bodied archery team. And that's a very, very big deal. I don't know if he was always that way or if he's that way because that's how he learned to deal with his disability. But he's very interesting, very driven. He and his wife really enjoy dancing together and they always wanted to take dance lessons but they never got around to it until now.
Another couple—the woman in the motorized chair—she is a former Miss Wheelchair Pennsylvania. It's like a pageant but it's not based necessarily on beauty, it's based on achievement. She has four children at home and another baby on the way. They never miss dance class and they drive over an hour to attend. Ray is a championship hand cycler, and if there's a hand cycling race coming up, he'll be there and he's sure to win.
Duane was recently accepted to an experimental program at the Christopher Reeve Center in Florida. He only became disabled maybe a year ago, so he's still adjusting. But he loves the dance class and attends twice a week. His partner happens to be a physical therapist and a ballroom dancer. She loves the wheelchair dancing.
The young girl, Stephanie, who is 17, doesn't use a chair all the time. She uses crutches. She uses the wheelchair for mobility to dance, because otherwise, she'd have to hold her crutches instead of her partner. Her cousin volunteered to be her partner—he's 13. She just lights up when she dances, and her father said that the money they spend on dance lessons is the best he's ever spent for her. The whole family attends every dance class.
These students are accustomed to dealing with obstacles, and they do it with humor and grace.
Have they had accidents or were they born with the disability?
Stephanie and Ann were both born with their disabilities. Rob, the archer, had an accident. A tree fell on him and broke his back. Ray had a motorcycle accident. Duane was a victim of violence. All of them are dealing with it. Duane is now a pre-law student, he gets straight A's, which he never did before this happened to him.
How do they know about your classes?
We worked very hard to collect this little group of dancers that we have. Ray and Melinda demonstrate at all of the rehabilitation centers around the area. Some very famous ones like Magee Rehabilitation Center and Ingles House. They'll go and demonstrate for a Christmas party, or for family night, and a lot of people get interested and want to be involved. A lot of them can't because transportation is an issue for them. They don't have their own specially equipped car. They don't have the choice of spending their free time doing something like this. Some of them don't have the extra income it takes. Some of them that want to be part of the class just live too far.
All our dancers come from rehabilitation centers one way or another. We've advertised in some disability magazines. One of them actually did a short story on Ray about a year ago, but it hasn't really taken off the ground, as far as people dying to get into the place. I have two classes, but they're small.
We have all couples right now, but we really want to involve singles as well, because we want them to be able to use their dancing as a social tool and as a way to interact with the rest of the able-bodied population.
And you teach them yourself?
Yes. Ray and Melinda are there to help.
You've started a Society too?
We have incorporated as the American Dance Wheels Foundation, with Ray Leight, Melinda Kremer, and myself as the directors. We're hoping that a wheelchair company or something like that will sponsor us. That would help us bring this to more disabled people. A lot of people with disabilities don't have that extra money to spend on something like dancing lessons. If they have money, they need to spend it on their needs. And they have more needs than you and I have. It's difficult.
You've spent a lot of time on this?
We spend a lot of time just messing around in the wheelchair, trying to make the step patterns work, and meantime, I have to teach them the other part. But most of the time is spent trying to perfect the moves and make them be musical. Make them look like step patterns that we're used to. The progressive twinkles work beautifully. But they didn't work beautifully until after we did them 100 times and figured out how to get the wheelchair partner to make the connection to turn at the right time and to have the feeling of swing that matches the music.
Tango works well because you use a lot of parallel position in American style tango. You have to use parallel position almost all the time in the chair if you're progressing; you can't be in front of the chair because you would get rolled over. But left and right parallel works great. Promenade position works, but there's no shoulder lead, except from the able-bodied partner. Counter promenade position works really well, so you can do back to back twinkles in fox trot and waltz very easily and there are a lot of exits that you can use that are comfortable.
The hardest dances to figure out were cha cha and rumba because you need to have some speed and the physical connection isn't just for communication, it's for movement as well. So the man has to communicate what he wants the lady to do, and then she's got to give him power back in return. We do that in normal dancing too, but not usually at an elementary level. These people are at an elementary level, so crossover breaks, hand to hand, spot turns and hockey stick are very difficult. Three cha chas work. Cross body lead works. But you have to have the lead. It has to be just right. It has to be timed differently than we would time it for two able-bodied dancers.
The lead has to be a little bit earlier, as if you were going to call it. You call it a beat ahead so that your partner can be prepared. If you're not prepared it doesn't work, because chairs only move so fast. And it also depends on the chair, one might move more slowly than another. It also depends if your motor is on your back wheels or your front wheels in a power chair because it can change the radius of the turn. And how far the disabled partner's feet stick out changes the other partner's part.
The position of the connecting hand relative to the wheels is very, very important. The connection of the disabled partner's hand to his own wheels is very, very important for rhythm and for movement and for style. The leads for the ladies that are in power chairs have to be through hand gestures and shaping and the turn of the head. And they make it work, once they learn it. It's really amazing.
What are your goals for the future?
We want to complete the technique book and the video. The manual is called Wheel One. And we want to make them available to people that want to learn it or want to teach it. We're planning to run two-day workshops training instructors in how to teach this. We've had a lot of interest all over the country from therapists who would like to learn, or from centers that would like their therapists to learn this. But it's difficult for the therapist to learn about the dancing and the music and then learn how to teach it. It's too much. It needs to be someone who already knows a little bit about what they're doing. There will be a lot of things involved in the workshop... how to move with the chair, the line of dance in a chair.
We're trying to bring this to dancers. In the last year, Ray and Melinda have demonstrated their dancing to very large audiences at some of the biggest competitions and they always get a standing ovation. The purpose of the demonstrations is to show people what a fabulous activity wheelchair dancing can be. And maybe some of those dancers will develop an interest in bringing wheelchair ballroom dancing to a group of disabled people in their area and teach it in their schools, or go to the local rehabilitation center and present this.
We're hoping to get something going with USABDA to help us reach more people. People that would be willing to be partners with our wheelchair dancers, people to assist with the classes, people that maybe know other people that are disabled that may develop an interest in this. We would like to expand our program by presenting dance courses in at least one high school and one university this fall. We want to show that it's something, and it's something special.
We are so excited about this. We thought we were the only ones, and I was weeks on the internet before I finally realized they were doing this big time in Europe. I thought we were the only ones in the world, because I never dreamed that anybody would dance in a wheelchair.
What do the other students at your school think of all this?
They are mesmerized by it. When the wheelchair class is dancing their formation, everything stops in the whole building. Everybody wants to see what they're doing. And everybody's already seen them, but they can see the progress and the improvement. We've finally gotten to the point where everybody stays in time with the music and where they can actually keep their position relative to the other dancers, which is very difficult to do, because there's so many things for them to think about. And we've finally gotten to the point where we can all form a straight line.
And the wheelchair dancers go out to dances too?
Duane goes out to the clubs. He loves to do the hustle. The dancers in our class want to use dancing as a social tool to meet people. So Duane and Ray use it to meet girls. Because every girl likes to dance, right? Public places are required to be wheelchair accessible. Not that they all are, but they're required to be. The clubs where they go have a lot of space, which is why the dancers like these particular clubs, and they fit in.
And the women like to dance with them?
One of the ladies in the class came from one of those clubs. Ray and Duane danced with her and said, "Oh, you're really good! Do you want to be my partner in a wheelchair ballroom dancing class?" She came and joined our class.
What has this experience done for you?
It's a way for me to do something different. I've always had the philosophy that dancing should be for everyone. That's why I gravitated to ballroom dancing. I used to dance with a professional ballet company, I danced with an opera company, I was a dance major in college. I started my Master's degree, and was going to be a dance therapist or something like that, because I realized that gypsy performance stuff all over the place was absolutely not for me. I've always thought that dancing should be for everyone and I always wondered how someone could watch people dancing or learning to dance and not feel compelled to get up and join in.
This is an opportunity for me to involve more people to get up and dance. It's fun. It's challenging. Interesting people come in to learn. It's an opportunity to be creative. It's an opportunity to do what I've always wanted to do, which is bringing dancing to as many people as possible.
In my school, I don't do that many private lessons. We do groups. We have bronze, silver and gold international, bronze, silver and gold American. We have junior classes in all the same levels. We have Latin jazz class twice a week. We have PDR, which is Practice, Drill and Repetition. It's one of our most popular classes. We just do drills on rotations and rhythm. We have a sample class for beginners. We have music class and teachers' training class and now wheelchair ballroom dancing class. It's like having a full curriculum in the studio.
And because wheelchair dancing is so special, nobody has ever said, "Oh, that's dumb," or "I could do that." It brings tears to their eyes. They say, "I can't believe it's so beautiful." It's not intended to be thrilling, or innovative, it's intended to be very normal, very regular, that's the point. That it's something that everybody can and should do. Or at least consider. And we'll see where it goes.
I think that people believe that people in wheelchairs are not capable of doing a lot of things, and it's not true. People that are in wheelchairs have a lot of things that are going to be difficult for them to do and to deal with, but they can do a lot of things that everybody else does. They can speak for themselves, they can hold a job, and they can learn how to dance.
We really want to have a lot of teachers all over the country learn this and add it to their regular dance school curriculum. For anyone who would be interested in learning this, I guarantee that your experience will be fun, rewarding and educational. I can also guarantee that this can change either your life or at least your outlook on life and on a group of people you would probably normally overlook.
Originally published in Dance Notes on May/ June 2004 by Christine Zona
About the Author:
A health major in college, Christine Zona has always been interested in physical, emotional and mental wellness. She is currently working on combining her dance expertise and healthy lifestyle knowledge to give dancers a lifestyle program that will increase their energy, enhance their performance and reshape their bodies.
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