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American DanceWheels: Rockin’ Rollin’ Rumba.

March 16, 2012

Text by Lauren Gordon. Images by Ashley Hall.

Quick, quick, slow. Quick, quick, slow.

My mantra does me no good. My poor partner, who has been dancing for two years now, patiently waits for to me to get all of the moves down so he can too. Apparently, the rhythmic push and pull of the rumba does not come naturally to me. An instructor, Rob Hansberry, sees us struggling, and relieves my partner for a moment.

A former marine, Hansberry squares off before me and clutches my hands. My eyes remain glued to my feet. I wait, and we stand still a little longer. I sheepishly look up and try to mimic the two-step dance move I learned moments ago.

With a forced smile and what must be a ton of patience, Hansberry firmly reminds me that in formal dancing, men lead – even if that man happens to be in a wheelchair, like my partner.

Melinda Kremer, executive director and co-founder of American DanceWheels, sees no reason to differentiate between a partner who is able-bodied and one who isn’t. As she stands in the gymnasium of Olney’s Widener Memorial School, Kremer instructs the room full of students to loosen their upper bodies, encouraging everyone to participate as fully as they can.

“I expect a lot from these kids, and they give a lot,” says Kremer. “If you get someone in your life who expects from you, you expect from yourself.”

Kremer, who trained as a performer at the Academy of Vocal Arts, located near Rittenhouse Square, never could have imagined the direction her life has turned.

With a flair for the creative, Kremer often took ballroom lessons and went dancing with her husband. Her daughter Jenna was enrolled in dance classes a few years after she could walk. At 11-years old, however, Jenna was diagnosed with a neuromuscular disease that affected her balance and coordination. She couldn’t dance any more, and Kremer hung up her dancing shoes in solidarity.

Kremer was forced to explore the world of living with a person with a disability. Jenna eventually enrolled in a rowing program where she met wheelchair athlete Ray Leight. Their conversations ultimately turned to dance. And Kremer and Leight began dancing together. They competed in the first Wheelchair DanceSport USA competition and won.

“We won because we looked like a real dance team,” explains Kremer. “He was leading. I was following.”

It was then that Kremer and Leight sought to develop steps and a curriculum for people who use a wheelchair and standing partner dances. Though wheelchair dancing is a very popular sport in Europe and Asia, there are only pockets of performers in the United States.

“In the beginning, it was a way for me to perform again, a way for me to dance again and for me to think that there was hope for Jenna and people like Jenna,” Kremer says. “The writing of the syllabus was the big turning point. We thought, ‘Why can’t everyone do this?’ We thought up of a way everyone could.”

American DanceWheels bridges the gap between the able-bodied and those who use wheelchairs. They hold competitions and classes around the region. They teach everyone that they can turn and glide and foxtrot or rumba, on two feet or two wheels, together.

“To be able to go to a wedding and not sit in a corner, that is our goal,” states Kremer. “It isn’t enough to give them a ramp to go in. They have to be able to do something when they get there.”

Back in the gymnasium at Widener, Kremer is a force to be reckoned with. Confident and assertive, she demonstrates with Rob Hansberry the moves of two agile, standing partners. She translates her swift, rhythmic moves to ones that mirror them with a sitting partner. Several steps and twirls later, she orders the group to try the moves. And despite the fact that every person in the room comes from a different comfort level regarding dance, the begin to move.

“We’ve had some resistance in the past,” Kremer says, “but not in this gymnasium.”

The biggest in-class obstacle is fear, she tells me. Not only are partners self-conscious about dancing in public, many of them fret over whether they’re able to understand and communicate with each other. Though there are requirements for people with disabilities to participate – like being able to move their own chair – people still are leery of just what the connection will be like. Even Hansberry, a dedicated student-turned-instructor, was wary in the beginning.

“I walked past the door three times before I even went in,” he recalls of his first time attending a class.

An employee at Bank of America at the time, Hansberry sought community service where  he could really become involved. He had never danced before – if you had told him years ago thdisaat he’d be ballroom dancing, he would have laughed in your face. Now, he makes the trip from his home in Delaware twice per week to assist Kremer’s classes.

“I get so much more out of it than they do,” he admits. “There is nothing quite like what happens here. Those kids are amazing.”

American DanceWheels instructors have taught hundreds of people who use wheelchairs and standing partners how to dance together. The organization is planning a trip to the Palo Alto Veterans’ Hospital for a six-week program to help vets learn how to dance and socialize if wounded. There are many therapeutic benefits to these programs, Kremer says, like developing better social and physical understanding of self. But Kremer still views the project as a way to simply teach dancing.

In 2007, Kremer lost her daughter, Jenna, who passed at the age of 22. Despite the loss, Kremer has never given up on her vision. She works tirelessly on fundraising so that the organization can continue introducing dance to people who otherwise might not realize they could. It isn’t easy in these difficult economic times.

“No one wants to pay to have these kids dragged around,” she says. “But they aren’t being dragged around. They are working their butts off on these steps as well. Do they really not understand that a person with a disability is just someone sitting down? And they’re so much more alike than they understand.”

One Comment
  1. March 22, 2013 9:01 pm

    Lauren, I just came across this article for the first time. Both Rob and I thank you for putting together this wonderful piece about American DanceWheels Foundation. You hit all of the critical points about the program and our dancers. Amazing!!!!

    Melinda Kremer and Rob Hansberry

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