Dance is an art that involves the entire body. A feat of mental and physical strength, the art of dance is traditionally seen as a craft involving people of a specific build, form, and ability. But as dance evolves more each day, this narrow view is expanding to include people of all shapes, sizes, and abilities. Wheelchair dancing is broadening the scope of the dance world one twirl at a time.
This genre of dance involves at least one of the dancers being in a wheelchair. “I found wheelchair dancing to be very athletic and creative, which is why I was instantly drawn to it,” says Aubree Nuzzie, choreographer and artistic director for the American DanceWheels Foundation (ADF) in Pennsylvania. Wheelchair dances performances can vary, from solo dancers in a wheelchair to a combination of able-bodied and wheelchair dancers sharing a stage. “We feel that integrating standing and seated individuals in a mainstream setting and having them work together to complete the moves has extraordinary power to change the perceptions that people may have of disability,” Nuzzie says.
For wheelchair dancer and instructor Derrick Williamson, his involvement started as an accident. After accidentally being included on an email list for a local spinal cord injury clinic, he volunteered to participate in a research study involving ADF and the Veterans Administration. After six weeks, the study ended with a competition at a dance studio. “I remember two things from that day,” Williamson says, “seeing a husband and wife being given a moment on the floor to dance together, whereas they hadn’t on their wedding day, and the second was simply the overwhelming joy everyone felt.” That day, Williamson decided he wanted to be a wheelchair dance instructor.
Wheelchair dance offers a great deal of benefits to participants. For those in wheelchairs, benefits include maintaining balance, increased flexibility and range of motion, better coordination, and increased respiratory control. In fact, ADF conducted a study in 2012 that measured the physical and psychological effects of their dance program, Wheel One. “The results showed significant benefits in participants’ strength, speed, and mood, just to name a few,” Nuzzie says.
Wheelchair dancing has many benefits for the able-bodied, too. “I think the standing dancers get an eye-opener when working with people who use wheelchairs,” Nuzzie says. She believes that individuals not in wheelchairs may change their perspectives of those with disabilities, as both the standing and seated performers have to do equal amounts of work when dancing.
Aside from the numerous health benefits, wheelchair dance is also an outlet for creativity and sport. Many wheelchair dance companies offer opportunities to perform the routines they learned in their classes. In particular, American DanceWheels has performed on the Dancing With the Stars national tour, a New York City flashmob for the TV show Push Girls, and even in the feature film Musical Chairs. Additionally, there are competitive opportunities for those more inclined toward sports. Para Dance Sport hosts World Championships for wheelchair dancing every year. “My partner and I were the first couple to ever represent America in a World Paralympic Dancesport Championship,” says Nuzzie, who is planning on competing in another world championship next year.
Of course, in order to compete in a wheelchair dance competition, you must know how to dance in the first place. Fortunately, Williamson says that it is all interconnected. Williamson had always been afraid of performing, but eventually learned that it isn’t just a performance. “It is a demonstration and it has the possibility of inspiring someone else,” Williamson says. And this is similar to the way it inspired him. “I have come to view the classes I teach simply as sharing a good time with others,” he says. Williamson believes that for many of his students, his classes are one of the only places they can feel confident. “It is about attaining a dream—like wanting to dance on your wedding day,” he says.
With its numerous benefits, wheelchair dancing is a sport that has changed the lives of many, and while not every state has programs like this, American DanceWheels is making it so that people from all over the world can get involved. Their new program, “DanceWheels Live,” offers their traditional program through Skype. “We have the ability to break through the barriers of transportation and geography using internet technology,” Nuzzie says. This makes it so that it’s possible for all people enjoy the benefits of wheelchair dancing.
Williamson has reaped benefits both big and small. “It has influenced everything from my bearing and the way I present myself, and has even been an influence on my career ambitions,” Williamson says. With the ability for anyone to get involved and the numerous benefits it entails, wheelchair dancing should be encouraging for everyone. “Don’t be afraid to ask someone in a wheelchair to dance,” Williamson says.