The inaugural event, presented by the RIM Foundation’s Dance Mobility program, saw more than a dozen dancers with disabilities from across the U.S. participate.
Wheelchair ballroom dancing, called Para Dance Sport, originated in Sweden in 1968. From there, the sport grew in popularity and, in 1977, the first international Para Dance Sport competition was held. Today, it is practiced in nearly 40 countries.
After retiring from Para Swimming in 2014, I was looking for a new competitive adapted sport and fell in love with wheelchair ballroom dancing. I soon realized the opportunities for others to experience Para Dance Sport in the U.S. were limited, so in 2015, I co-founded Dance Mobility, a non-profit program that provides free adapted ballroom dance group lessons to persons who use a wheelchair or have other physical challenges.
What was missing was an opportunity for these dancers to compete among their peers on American soil. My dance partner, Tamerlan Gadirov, and I have been competing together nationally and internationally since 2016. When we compete in the United States, it is always against standing couples. In the past, if we wanted to compete against other wheelchair users, we had to go to Europe or Canada, where these types of competitions were being held. That is, until now.
As I entered the competition venue on July 16, I cannot begin to describe my excitement and pride at looking around the room and seeing others who look like me, who understand my challenges and strengths, and simply yearn for the opportunities offered to others. Representation matters, inclusion matters.
“It was such a cool opportunity to grow as a dancer in a way that I otherwise wouldn’t have had among my standing peers”, said 14-year-old Eve Dahl from Burlington, Wisconsin. “I am so excited to have been a part of the first Para Dance competition in the U.S., knowing it will pave the way for future Para Dancers.”
Competitors take to the floor to warm up prior to the start of the competition.
(Photo courtesy of Sylvia Jarrus)
Dancers like Robin Wooten heard about the competition and came to watch. Wooten used to ballroom dance before she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. “It’s amazing,” Wooten told a reporter as she wiped away tears. “I don’t know them personally, but I swear they’re my family because they share my same struggle. My tears are happy tears.”
“My favorite part of the competition was the camaraderie I felt. We all cheered each other on. I now have many new friends,” said Lauren Arena from Queens, New York.
Lauren Arena and her partner, Arkadiy Stepanchuk from New York have been part of the ballroom scene for years, but this was the first time they competed together as partners.
(Photo credit Paul Stoloff)
Although many of the dancers met as strangers, they were united in their joy and passion for dancing.
“I love to dance because it is unlike anything I do on a typical day. It gives movement to a wheelchair user that cannot be recreated in a typical setting, said Martha Siravo from Madison, Wisconsin. “It’s an honor and a blessing to be a representation of how my disability does not define or restrict my abilities through dance; rather, it enhances and celebrates them,” she added.
Martha Siravo from Wisconsin gets a lift from her partners Matthew Payne and Arthur Sigmund during their freestyle routine.
(Photo Credit Paul Stoloff)
It is amazing to see the impact and power Dance Mobility has in changing people’s lives. I have lots of awards, Paralympic medals, and even world records in Para Swimming, but cofounding Dance Mobility is one of my proudest achievements.
To help continue to grow Dance Mobility and Para Dance Sport movement in the U.S., Tamerlan and I are taking the program we designed in Michigan and launching it in other states, such as Wisconsin, Indiana, Arizona and Texas. Our mission is to show people there are no limitations in life or dancing.
Take this opportunity to follow us on social media to stay tuned and learn more about an exciting international competition next year, where we will be welcoming Para Dancers from around the world.
To learn more about Dance Mobility, visit dancemobility.org