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Dancing with disabilities

American DanceWheels Foundation performers showcase moves done in a wheelchair

American DanceWheels Foundation performers Rik Daniels right) and Aubree Marchione (left) showcase wheelchair latin dancing in a salsa routine for Dance Haddonfield late last month. (Emily Liu/The Sun)

This month’s Dance Haddonfield dance session featured guest performers Rik Daniels and Aubree Marchione from American DanceWheels Foundation (ADF), an organization that teaches wheelchair ballroom and Latin dancing to people of all abilities. The goal was to raise funds and awareness for the group. 

Dance Haddonfield featured Daniels and Marchione in a salsa routine, and at one point, Daniels got out of his chair and walked on all fours toward Marchione, before performing a move similar to breakdancing and returning to his chair to spin her around.

“It’s the only written syllabus in the world for American-style ballroom and Latin wheelchair dancing adapted from the traditional syllabus, so some of these moves that you see us do, you might recognize yourself.” said Marchione, an ADF artistic director.

Marchione noted that prior to creating the couples routine, dances between seated and standing individuals were specific to pair dancing. The syllabus allows for any wheelchair and standing partner to dance together and can be adjusted to their needs. There are also cases where two wheelchair users – called duos –  also dance.

Marchione has been dancing for more than 20 years, Daniels for almost his whole life. His experience included hip hop and breakdancing before he learned ballroom and Latin with the ADF. 

In traditional ballroom and Latin dancing, one person leads and another follows. The leader is  responsible for initiating and communicating the moves through the duo’s frame and hand connection. It’s the same in wheelchair dancing.

“When we teach, it’s really great, because we teach a lot in school districts, and it gives them an opportunity to learn how to lead, learn how to follow,” Marchione explained. “But we have expectations of our students. We don’t just go in and say, ‘Let’s dance, let’s move our hands this way or that way.’ (Instead) it’s, ‘This is how you lead and if you don’t lead, then your partner is not going to do their part.’”

“The key word is responsibility,” Daniels noted. “We have a responsibility to our partner, and in terms of being present mentally and connecting and contributing equally in that exchange.”

He and Marchione have seen the empowering effects that teaching someone how to lead has had on people, with disabilities and without. One man was filled with hope when he learned there was a way that he could dance with his wife, and another said it made him “feel like a man” for the first time since an injury. 

Daniels and Marchione expressed how lessons learned from ballroom dancing extend beyond the dance floor. 

“We had some students write us letters,” Marchione recalled. “They were middle- and high-school students, and one of the main things that they said was, ‘We really appreciate that you had expectations of us and pushed us to be better. And that really was special to me,  because it made me believe in other things that I could do, even go to college.’”

Daniels’ mom played a big role in how he viewed things growing up. He tried skateboarding, swimming and jump rope, and found ways to do so that worked for him. When he was older, Daniels had a dance mentor who also played an instrumental role in his life and how he viewed himself.

“Also as a performance artist, you’re also the art,” Daniels recalled his mentor saying. “ … You don’t realize it, but everyone watches you, the way you navigate the stool. It’s like choreography, and it is choreography because I come up with set patterns to get to where I need to get to.”

When speaking with the Dance Haddonfield audience, Daniels encouraged them to rethink how they view disability.

“If a tall person walks into the room and reaches up and changes a lightbulb, but a short person needs a step ladder, we don’t automatically call the step ladder an assistant for us, we call it a step ladder,” he related. “And we don’t consider them disabled because they can’t do what the tall person does. They just happen to be shorter.

“Everybody has some things they can do and some things they can’t do, and I can certainly do some things that other people can’t do, and I can’t do some things that other people can.”

The ADF expanded during COVID to offer online classes in addition to in-person session,  making the dance even more accessible. 

To support or learn more about American DanceWheels Foundation, visit https://www.americandancewheels.org. Questions and performance requests can be directed to info@americandancewheels.org.

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