By Cynthia Robertson
‘Differently abled’ dancers showcased
Something beautiful happened on Nov. 12 at the Balboa Park Club. While pockets of protesters throughout the park were chanting angrily about the presidential election results, hundreds of people rolled or walked to the ballroom for a Wheelchair Dancer Organization (WDO) fundraiser.
Master of ceremonies Sheri Malvestuto thanked everyone for coming to the “This Is How We Roll” event, which was the fourth annual Dance Abilities Showcase.
“Our wheelchair dancers and dance volunteers have devoted many hours of practice time to perfect their dance routines,” Malvestuto said.
Wheelchair dancers are dubbed rollers and the volunteers are called walkers. Malvestuto said the wheelchair dancers and dance volunteers have devoted many hours of practice time to perfect their dance routines.
“Our dancers are all differently abled. We no longer use the word disabled. Maybe some of you were thinking you couldn’t dance with wheelchairs. We are proving today that you can — and you can take every dance there is to the floor in a wheelchair,” she said.
The event was also a tribute to Joe Torres, the dance director who will be retiring and moving to Puerto Rico.
“This is an emotional time for me. I have made life-long friends for the last five years. You’re all invited to come visit me in Puerto Rico. But now let’s dance!”
Rollers and walkers from ages 7 to 70 got in on the fun.
Roller Angelo Sanchez, 7, did some fancy moves in his wheelchair while his sister Gracie, 6, danced around him and pushed and pulled.
“Angelo has been dancing with WDO since he was 3 years old. He just always loved to dance, his sister, too,” said Happy Sanchez, their mother.
“Dancing takes their mind someplace else,” Sanchez said.
The WDO’s motto is “Changing Lives Through Dance.” The weekly wheelchair dance classes have attracted many different abilities, from stroke, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, spina bifida and spinal cord injuries.
Hope Baker, who is pursuing a doctorate in marriage and family therapy, has danced for a number of years as a roller with WDO. “It’s changed my life because it has helped me to take care of myself,” she said. “If I did not dance, I would not be getting any exercise.”
The WDO dance lessons will be on break over Christmas. Baker said she planned to get out and socialize with others in a park near where she lives.
Another very important way that WDO has helped change people’s lives for the better is the social benefit. That goes for walkers as well as rollers.
“Young people who have never tried rumba or tango or any of the beautiful dances can come here and learn some great things,” Torres said.
Aitana and Gonzalo Allen-Perez, both walkers, have taken their dance lessons to a professional level. Their performance with rollers Emma Mondragon and Angelo Sanchez sent a chorus of “wows” around the ballroom.
The Dance Showcase featured a variety of ballroom dance styles including a lovely choreographed piece for Bev Weurding, founder of WDO, and Joe Torres. Weurding’s face shone and eyes sparkled with joy as Torres spun her around in dreamy moves to the tune of “I Hope You Dance.”
A wave of applause echoed through the ballroom.
“It has been just wonderful working with Joe for the last five years. We will miss him when he goes, but he has to move on with his life like everyone else,” Weurding said.
The organization has chosen Jason Rivers to take Torres’ place. Rivers has taught ballroom dancing for 26 years. At a recent event, he had performed with the wheelchair dancers and was truly impressed.
“I’m really excited about it. There are a few differences, mainly in some of the step work, in dancing with rollers. I have actually rented a wheelchair and used it to understand the way the connection works between the walker and the roller,” Rivers said.
“I do have some big shoes to fill,” he said, referring to Torres.
Ten dance performances and several open dance sessions kept people moving and grooving to the music at the event. Toward the end of the afternoon, the rollers sat in a circle with Torres in the center dancing to “Uptown Funk.” One by one, the rollers came into the circle to dance with Torres. At one point, little Emma Mondragon wheeled into the circle and Torres picked her up and twirled her around with her in the chair.
“The best things happen when you choose inclusivity, not exclusivity,” Malvestuto said.
Dance lessons are offered free. Check the Wheelchair Dancers Organization’s website at wheelchairdancers.org for more information.
— Cynthia Robertson is a local freelance writer.