The dance floor is one place I have never fallen. I’ve come close, but I have managed to win every fight that the ground picked with me. Take that, gravity. Dance has been an adventure ever since I started it six years ago. Ballroom dance is a challenge for anyone who does it, but people rarely see what it’s like for someone in a wheelchair. Here are six secrets from the world of wheelchair ballroom dancing.
You Don’t Need Legs, and You need Physics.
“But how do you dance without…Y’know…-nervously gestures down to my legs-” I’m glad you asked. I could give a long speech about how the unbreakable human spirit finds always finds a way (gag), and that would be true… But let’s be logical for a minute. In dance, there are two things that everyone needs. The first thing that you need is something to move with. However, this ‘thing’ could be legs, arms, a jetpack, anything. Get creative with it. As long as you can move in different directions, legs are irrelevant. Most dancers happen to have working legs because most people do.
Moving from there, let’s talk about the second thing you need. Take a look at the above picture. These two dancers hold each other in a semi-flexible structure called a frame. When done correctly, each point of physical contact helps the two dancers work off of each other and move as a team; this is called physical connection. The slightest pressure against a palm, shifting the shoulders, or twisting the waist helps the couple move together. Physical connection happens entirely through the upper body. So I have both the means to move and communicate with my partner in the same place.
Dancing With Me Is Easier Than You Think
“I would love to dance with you, and I just don’t know how.”
Those words are my most significant barrier to dancing. My entire life was built around challenging misconceptions, but my approach to dance is unique. In most of my other hobbies, I only need one person to help me prove people wrong: me. Ballroom dance is different. As the saying goes, it takes two to tango. If I want to prove that I can dance and anyone, then I need a partner who is open to the experience. If I can’t find that partner, then I’m not dancing. If I’m not dancing, nothing changes, and the cycle continues. Dancing with someone you like should be simple, so let’s set the record straight. If you know how to dance, you can dance with me. When you dance with me, almost nothing changes. The rhythm, lead, and follow are all the same. So when you’re with me, there are only two things to keep in mind.
First, my center of gravity is lower. When your center of gravity is lower, your frame goes lower. Most dancers’ frames are at shoulder height, but when I take a lady’s hand, it stays at waist level. If my hand goes any higher, you won’t feel my lead as easily. Second, go for it if you want to get up close and personal. Dancing is supposed to be fun, sexy, and intimate. There is nothing less fun, sexy, or intimate than a partner that treats you like a twelve-year-old cousin. If a dance calls for you to get up in my grill, get up in my grill! If you’re not sure about how to, ask. Part of the fun is having someone who wants to play around and figure things out. Just don’t do anything you wouldn’t do with a non-disabled partner. I’m sitting, but this isn’t a strip club, and I didn’t ask for a lap dance. Follow my lead, and we’ll get as close to PG-13 as you‘re comfortable with. I promise.
Being a Wheelchair User Makes Me a Better Dancer
So, I have all of the tools to be a dancer… But does being in a wheelchair affect the quality of my dancing? It does. Being in a wheelchair helps me be a better dancer. Think about this: when I dance, I have to connect with my partner, so my hands are busy the entire time. I rarely have a chance to push my chair myself because I’m using my upper body to lead. Because I can’t use the one thing that helps me move independently, I must pay attention to every little movement. Did you shift half an inch to the left? I felt that. That small hip tilt? I felt that too. Your palm twitched, so I used the resulting connection to spin you twice. My connection is fine-tuned, down to the smallest interaction.
My hyper-sensitivity also helps me navigate the dance floor. Not all men are as careful on the floor as they should be. They step on their partners’ toes, awkwardly fumble around the floor, manhandle, and use their partner as a battering ram. Being treated like this is where I live most of the time, so I get it. When I go out, I have to be aware of my space every day. A crowded room could make getting from one end to the other impossible. A party is a minefield of spilling drinks, tripping over legs, and bumping into awkward body parts. I face the possibility of manhandling daily, more than most men do. I HAVE FUN when I’m on the floor, but that part of my brain is firing on all cylinders.
Being in a wheelchair also pushes me to put myself out there and take risks. I tend to get involved in activities where everyone else is non-disabled. I’m used to people doubting me and having low expectations. Fortunately, I’m an adrenaline junkie with a wicked sense of humor. Few things make me happier than finding someone who doubts me, and saying “Oh, yeah? Watch this.” I have come to my partners with ideas that range from calculated risks to “Eric, that‘s insane, and the answer is no.” When I take a calculated risk, I rarely have the example of another dancer to follow. The world of amateur wheelchair ballroom dance is relatively small, and information is not as accessible as it should be. When I take calculated risks, I have to be more self-aware about my skills and have the courage to trust myself and my partner.
My partner Lindsey is doing an arabesque on my footplate as I rotate, like figures in a music box. This picture is from my first routine, less than a year after I started dancing. Was it easy? Nope. Was it safe?… Hehe. Mostly. Before we started, we had a long conversation about what the trick entailed and how we could make it safe. Then, we practiced for the next four months. She also threatened me not to drop her within an inch of my life, but she was kidding. Mostly.
When Lindsey came up with the idea, I said yes immediately. Being in a wheelchair has taught me that when you’re up against the odds and find that people doubt you, you have to think outside the box. I had the skill, and I knew I could handle it, so I took the risk.
My Dancing Exposes Preconceived Notions
Everyone at my studio is fantastic. They make up most of my friends, and I have never been happy to lose an instructor. When I first started, however, preconceived notions flew both ways. One of my wheels broke on the day I scheduled my first lesson, and I have rarely been so relieved to cancel on someone. For me, dancing in a wheelchair was like going behind enemy lines. In my mind, no one there was going to understand me, and they weren’t there to try. I knew that most people there were career athletes and people who were a good thirty or forty years older than me. in my experience, views about disability from people in those groups didn’t inspire confidence. Those views can be hurtful but are almost never caused by hate.
A dance instructor’s body is their livelihood. When you’re in that position, it’s easy to equate physical disability with your life being over. If you’re injured, you have to rework everything in your life and find something else to do. Many younger students feel similarly since they’re typically career dancers who will become instructors. If I were in that position, disability would worry me too. But, then, consider the students who are way out of my age range: they may have never experienced disability outside of a nursing home or a hospital. Many students and teachers from every level look for the tragedy in my life and are surprised to find none there.
My Biggest Struggles Are Invisible
Dancing in a wheelchair comes with plenty of external challenges. I have had to push my physical limits hard to get where I am, but my physical limits have never brought me close to quitting. The struggles you can’t see are usually far worse. I am ultra-competitive. I push myself to be the best I can be, and I want to win everything. I’m also acutely aware that there are people who don’t take me as a “serious competitor.”; people who look at what I do and think, “Isn’t that sweet? They’re ‘letting’ him to perform.” Imagine being on the floor and having those thoughts running through your head. Imagine the lung-squeezing, head-spinning anxiety you might get from that much pressure. Then, consider the following:
I have anxiety anyway.
For me, anxiety is also a biological condition. Many people in my family have it, and although I’ve learned to manage it, I’ll always have it in some form. For a long time, my anxiety was debilitating. On the dance floor, I looked plain unhappy. I would tremble all day at competitions, which made it exhausting to smile or be expressive. Crowded floors drove my fight or flight reflexes through the roof, so making eye contact with my partner was out of the question. I loved to dance, but my anxiety made it hard to express that.
Four years ago, everything got bad enough that I nearly quit. Everyone has a dance that didn’t go as well as they thought. For me, that dance was my third rhythm competition. I made one or two small missteps, but overall I felt like I had done better than I ever had before. This was it. I had worked so hard, and everything went exactly the way it was supposed to. Surely, I was going to place. This was my moment… or not. I got an eighth-place out of eight, and from there, the pressure cooker of my mind exploded. All of the anxious thoughts I had been carrying all day came pouring out. Clearly, your best isn’t good enough. You failed. You don’t belong here. You’re not a “serious competitor,” and everyone knows it.
As I shook hands and congratulated everyone, my lungs began to close. Then, my head started to spin. By the time I reached my car, I was trembling, hyperventilating, and my heart was beating hard against my chest. Finally, I couldn’t do it anymore. I had won awards for multiple routines, but I still wasn’t “good enough” at competitions. My anxiety had improved immensely, but moments like these were still happening. Dance just wasn’t meant to be. Something had to give- I had to stop. I took out my phone, pulled up my studio’s phone number, and my finger hovered over the call button. No one was there so that I could leave a message, and no one would argue. I don’t know what stopped me, but I am glad I didn’t make that call. It has been four years, and almost no one knows about my anxiety, much less about what happened that day. Everyone has bad days, but when you have a disability, people try to turn your bad days into tragedies. So, it’s hard to let myself be human.
I Get To Be Subversive
Discussing my disability with people feels like opening Pandora’s box. One day, I could open the box and find empowerment, respect, and openness with the people in my life. The next day, I might open the box to find that my friends are not who I thought they were or that the world hasn’t made as much progress as I thought. These conversations are just as scary for the person on the other end because they threaten to reveal layers of ignorance, fear, and prejudice, even if the person doesn’t mean to be hurtful. That’s terrifying. So, some people approach me in a way that looks and feels kind but allows them to sidestep difficult conversations and stay in their comfort zone. The interactions we have might feel good, but they don’t confront any pressing issues that lead to camaraderie, respect, or a real connection.
On a day-to-day basis, most of the discrimination I face goes unnoticed. I have never been spat on or threatened, and I have rarely been called slurs. Most day-to-day discrimination looks like what I described above; people sidestep real emotions and avoid talking about real issues. Practical problems like accessibility are chalked up to my bad attitude and swept under the rug. Dance helps me open Pandora’s box because it doesn’t let anyone sidestep emotion. If I want to tell a personal story through dance, I have to be honest. If my partner wants to help tell that story, s