Dance is for EVERYONE: Dancers With Disabilities Share Their Stories

A man in a titanium-framed wheelchair holds his hand out to a woman and leads her out onto the dance floor. As the claves and congas hit, he deftly moves through a series of Salsa steps, perhaps to his partner’s surprise. At the end of the song, he leads her back to her seat, where she gushes to her friends— “He was awesome.”

The scenario above is a typical night out for avid dancer Paul Thompson. The New Jersey- based project manager got into social dancing about ten years ago and did his first Salsa performance this year at the Baltimore Salsa Congress. Paul, and many others around the world, are working to make the Latin dance floor an inclusive space.

Paul says that getting into dance was an easy choice, not just because of his background in theatre.

“It was Darwinian evolution. If I wanted to keep up with the ladies to socialize, I had to learn to dance.”

His initial exposure to social dance was with a group in Philadelphia that teaches wheelchair ballroom dancing. There he learned Rumba, Waltz, some Tango, and Foxtrot, and used that foundation to help him when he went to a Latin dance event.

After a break from social dancing, he came back with renewed vigor to just Latin dance, going with friends to different clubs and studios.

“I met all these different instructors…basically I would challenge them. Show up and say ‘I’m here to learn,’” says Paul. “Most of them have said ‘The first time I saw you I didn’t know what you would do, then I saw what you could do.’”

Paul has had to get creative with his lead.

“Since I’m not using my feet to plant myself and spin, I have to use the momentum of my partner or the hand position to do so,” he says.

But for him, the most challenging part hasn’t been adapting the steps. It’s been getting to the venues.

“A lot of people invite me to places in Philly that have been around for a long time…before ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] was around. There are dance clubs on a second floor or in a basement with no elevator. Or if there’s a large crowd in a small studio or it’s crowded I can’t go to them. It takes up a lot of space to dance with a chair,” he says.

Paul wishes more people with disabilities would try dancing and uses a performing arts company he cofounded, Able Arts, to help spread his love for dance, music, comedy, theatre, and more.

“Unless you try, you’re not going to learn, to find out if you can or not. You might not be at the same level as someone else, but you never know until you try.”

Many people are unaware that there are options for dancers with disabilities to learn in an environment tailored to their needs. Boston-based Kerry Thompson (no relation to Paul) has created an inclusive dance company, Silent Rhythms, so that people with disabilities can discover the joy of dance.

Thompson, who identifies as Deafblind, started taking Salsa lessons with a friend at a club called Sophia’s in Boston, but didn’t get really hooked until she discovered Rueda.

“Rueda was really what really started my passion for Salsa. In Rueda, every dance move has a hand signal so that when the caller calls out the move, s/he also gestures with the hand signal. That made me feel on the same page as all the other hearing dancers. They couldn’t hear over the music and I couldn’t hear period,” she says.

After a few years of taking classes, Kerry began performing with Boston Rueda Dance and MetaMovements.

“The other people who were in those classes or performance team were terrific in helping me. Nearly ten years later, I am still friends with many of those from the early days. We formed a strong bond and some of them had never met a person with a disability or someone who was Deaf, so they learned about that world as they got to know me and see the world through my view,” says Kerry.

In 2008, Kerry founded Silent Rhythms when she realized there was a need for more inclusive dance classes.

“As more and more Deaf people approached me about learning to dance or bemoaned that they could not dance due to their deafness, I realized that there was a need to have a dance program that could be accessible to all. I knew how hard it had been for me to learn and that was because I was Deaf but being taught as if I were hearing,” she says.

Kerry uses a variety of methods to convey the information to her students.

“When I teach dancing, I do so in sign language and use props like resistance bands and paint tape to help create a visual. For example, if I am teaching a right turn or cross body lead, I want them to understand that they have to return to their starting position and “keep the line.” To help them understand that, I put paint tape on the floor to help them see the line and what I am talking about. My teaching style is to be flexible, creative, and above all patient.”

For Kerry, dance is a way to express herself in ways she can’t do every day.

“Dancing lets me feel the freedom of movement. In my daily routine, I have to take slow, measured steps and use my white cane to get from point A to point B. When dancing, I feel like I can let go of the shackles of being blind as I spin, turn, and pivot in time with the rhythm of the music. Dancing is an unspoken language. I do not have to worry about conventional forms of communicating with hearing people. When I dance with a hearing person who does not sign, we can still communicate without saying or signing a word,” she says.

She loves the community aspect of dance and says that Silent Rhythms can bring together the deaf and hearing, blind and sighted communities. However, she is only one person and can only reach so many people— she hopes that dance teachers will be more inclusive, incorporating sign language and other aids into their teaching.

Kerry Thompson leading a crowd in what she calls “deaf applause.”

Certified Wheelchair Dance Instructor and recreation therapist Vanessa Lopes is working to bring inclusivity to dance as well. She works in New York City at a nursing home, using dance and movement to rehabilitate patients. Vanessa is passionate about letting people with disabilities know about the options available to them for dance.

“A lot of the times the reason people with disabilities don’t dance is because there’s no education. The opportunities out there are limited. [We] need to advocate and promote knowledge,” she says.

American Dance Wheels offers Skype lessons designed for one seated and one standing partner, and trains instructors, therapists, and individuals how to dance and teach. The L.A. Salsa Festival featured performances by Limitless Dance Company, an LA-based wheelchair dance company; Paloma, a Brazilian dancer with Down’s Syndrome and her partner Deividi; Yenifer Montiel, a teenaged dancer with a prosthetic leg; and Sheneragh Nemani, a New Zealand woman with cerebral palsy who dances in a wheelchair. The World Latin Dance Cup in Orlando features a “Limitless” division to showcase dancers with disabilities. (Paul Thompson is considering participating in the division this year, so keep an eye out  for him.) Los Angeles-based Infinite Flow Dance company is a professional wheelchair ballroom dance company dedicated to performance, training, and outreach.

The dance floor is open to anyone ready to get out on it. There are no limits, just endless opportunities for connection, movement, and enjoyment. Keep an eye out in your dance community for ways to make it truly limitless.

These are just a handful of stories from individuals around the country, we’d love to hear yours! 

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  1. says: Eszter

    I loved reading this post about how disabled people overcome their obsticles and do what they love to do, dance.
    My story is a bit different. I might not be considered as disabled but have an illness that limits my abilities and possibilities. For 5years now I was diagnosed with Crohns desease. I can still consider myself lucky as mine is not at that serious level as some other people I know.
    First i had to face the fact that its not something that I or any doctors can change, but something that I can’t predict. Some days I will feel good and can do things healthy people do. But some days, weeks when I have pain in the belly or diarrhea, or my stomach doesn’t feel good, I just need to stay at home resting. Then step by step gaining back my power. Which is also a challenge, because I can’t eat everything, I might not have enough vitamins in the food that I can eat or even if I eat it, it might not be fully absorbed.
    Which makes any sports activities harder because I feel weak.
    But when I had a better period, after dealing with the diseaseat a soul level, I started dancing bachata :))
    I just went to a normal class and again and again. I fell in love with it so much, that its the only thing that motivates me so much that I would do it even if I have lighter pain or have less energy.
    Because I love it so much, I learned how I could fit it to my life. I don’t have a fix partner so after a while I left the general lessons and started to take private lessons from my teacher. As he is professional and more gentle than perhaps newjoiners would be it was an optimal solution for me, as he doesn’t do something that would hurt me. And also I found it hard to explain on a general lessons to every guy (after each partner change) why I don’t want to do a certain figure.
    On the private lesson it easier to say if I have a belly pain, that I wouldn’t do certain figures, or can ask the teacher to not touch my belly if it is more sensitive that day.
    I can develop like this at my own pace in a safe environment for me.
    And I join parties once in a while when I feel myself better, keeping in mind how much I’m capable of.
    Though its hard many times that my body is not able to do what my soul desires, as I can’t dance as much as I would wish.
    But still I’m grateful for the hours and days when I can. Dance and music is magical, and heals in a certain way 🙂
    So I would also encourage every people disabled or not to do what their heart desires to do. And try to shape it to their capabilities always taking very good care of themselves. You have to learn yourself first to know how far you can go, which is still good for your health. But still there are ways and by-passig paths that support you to do something that you would at first consider impossible.
    Always follow your heart 🙂
    Encouraging hugs to all of you 😉