How Dancing on Wheels Renewed My Spirit

My mind, body and spirit become connected while dancing in my wheelchair

Article Highlights:
  • After receiving a diagnosis of limb-girdle muscular dystrophy, author Beverly Weurding explains that the disease's progression and increasing physical limitations forced her into depression and a self-imposed exile from the world.
  • Although she was forced to take an early retirement and use a wheelchair full time, she turned a negative into a positive and found a way to dance to music in a wheelchair.
  • Along with a certified wheelchair dance instructor, she co-founded the Wheelchair Dancers Organization, which provides free, ongoing dance classes for wheelchair users (motorized and manual), and able-bodied volunteers.
by Beverly Weurding on January 1, 2012 - 12:07pm

QUEST Vol. 19, No. 1

Sixteen years ago, I learned I have limb-girdle muscular dystrophy (LGMD).

My doctor explained that LGMD would take away my freedom to perform everyday functions such as walking, climbing, sitting, dancing and playing sports, and that it would eventually lead to extreme muscle wasting, daily pain and the need to use a wheelchair.

The author with William Valencia, her co-founder of Wheelchair Dancers, who also serves as the organization’s dance director.

For five years, with the use of medication, I was able to camouflage the physical changes occurring in my body.

I began every day with a positive outlook, believing that I could get beyond my pain and fatigue by looking forward with a smile and gratitude for all the blessings in my life.

But soon my symptoms progressed and were obvious to others, especially at work. This was responsible for my early retirement. Soon I was using a wheelchair for most of my activities.

I entered a period of self-imposed exile. Spells of anxiety and panic attacks were part of my depression. I became a recluse and isolated myself from those I loved and from society. I didn’t want to have my friends see me in a wheelchair, nor have people look past me or through me, but never at me.

I did not want to be invisible.

This is when I asked God for help. “Please guide me with what to do next.” I wanted to turn a negative into a positive, and also break down some of the barriers, including isolation, that exist for disabled people like myself.

And then I had an epiphany: dancing to music in a wheelchair. Could I once again experience the joy of dancing while in a wheelchair? And could people like me experience the grace of dancing regardless of physical limitations?

I shared this vision with recreational therapist Liz Clarno, the adaptive swim program coordinator at Grossmont Hospital in San Diego. Liz said, “If you find a certified wheelchair dance instructor, then Grossmont Hospital would support such a program by offering free wheelchair dance classes.”

Searching for a teacher

This would be easy, I thought. I would make a few calls to local dance studios and find a professional dance instructor willing to participate in a program designed specifically for people utilizing wheelchairs and their able-bodied volunteer partners.

It wasn’t so easy!

A year later, after rejections from all of the dance studios in San Diego, I finally received an email from William Valencia, a professional dance instructor and owner of Absolutely Dancesport in San Diego. He was open to hearing more.

When William and I arranged a meeting, he listened to my dream and passion about experiencing ballroom dancing in a wheelchair and sharing this experience with the disabled community. William, a dedicated professional dancer and visionary, was ready and willing to walk this path with me.

I finally located a dance studio in Delaware, American Dancewheels Foundation, that offered a certified wheelchair dance instructor program and William and I flew out there. William received his certification in wheelchair dancing, and I again experienced the excitement and exhilaration of dancing, this time from the vantage point of my wheelchair.

William showed tremendous compassion and willingness to patiently create wheelchair ballroom dance movements to accommodate my physical challenges. He made a physical assessment of my health limitations before introducing dance patterns to the cha-cha, rumba and waltz.

William and I learned that the potential physical benefits of wheelchair dancing include better balance, muscle strength, flexibility, range of motion, coordination and respiratory control. Positive emotional and psychological effects can come from social interaction and developing relationships.

Wheelchair dancing provides social dancers with a fun and friendly outlet. Competitive wheelchair dancers can develop their sportsmanship and compete in professional dance competitions, both locally and internationally. Wheelchair dancing is an activity that fully integrates the wheelchair user and able-bodied person.

Spreading the joy

Wheelchair dancing helps me feel physically and emotionally more confident. I can't find the words to express the “heavenly experience” I feel when my dance partner takes my hands, looks into my eyes and rhythmically glides me across the dance floor. My wheels become my feet, and I become one with the music and my partner. Mind, body and spirit become connected while dancing in my wheelchair.

It’s my belief that wheelchair dancing can change one’s life forever. It offers a feeling of accomplishment, nurtures the creative spirit and provides a sense of freedom from disability.

I had a vision to show other challenged people, young and adult, how wheelchair dancing can make a positive impact on their lives. With funding from the Christopher Reeve, Craig Neilsen and Sharp Grossmont foundations, the Wheelchair Dancers Organization was created in 2008 to provide free, ongoing dance classes for wheelchair users (motorized and manual) and able-bodied volunteers.

Wheelchair dance classes meet one hour per week for eight-week sessions, at rehabilitation centers and dance studios. These classes have given 85 wheelchair users a new meaning to “dancing on their wheels.” We have seen firsthand the benefits — physical, mental and emotional — for individuals utilizing wheelchairs. Our able-bodied volunteers reap the same benefits when partnering with the wheelchair user.

Receiving the San Diego MDA Personal Achievement Award in 2010 gave me a sense of accomplishment and the confidence to grow our organization by training and entering wheelchair dancers in non-wheelchair dance competitions — and winning trophies in several dance categories.

Finding one’s purpose

My life’s purpose has been identified — that of sharing with other disabled people in our community the importance of having a dream and living it.

I’m passionate about sharing the many benefits of ballroom wheelchair dancing with the disabled community. With wheelchair dancing, one experiences the beauty, grace and inner satisfaction of dancing on wheels … one roll, one stroke at a time.

I believe each one of us has the ability to change the boundaries of our physical challenges. I no longer feel isolated from society. I now speak to groups and talk about my passion. I see excitement come over an audience when I describe the experience generated by wheelchair dancing. This is my connection to the able-bodied world. Now, people gather around me to find out what I’m doing, and how they can get involved with wheelchair dancing.

Beverly Weurding, of San Diego, Calif., is co-founder of the nonprofit Wheelchair Dancers Organization. A ballroom and Latin wheelchair dancer, Weurding (who has limb-girdle muscular dystrophy) can be reached at bevweurding@san.rr.com.


The following videos are provided courtesy of YouTube channel, Absolutely Dancesport.

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