Sunday, July 23, 2006

Shall We Dance? Don't Let That Wheelchair Stop You!

By Ad Crable
Lancaster New Era
Published: Jul 17, 2006 12:06 PM EST

LANCASTER COUNTY, PA - One of the joys of living is that no matter how much you see, your eyes still can be opened to new insights and inspiration. Recently, I rented the documentary film “Murderball.” It’s an intimate, if often blunt, glimpse into the very physical world of wheelchair rugby, in which quadriplegic men fuse themselves into wheelchairs they’ve customized into battering rams.They knock themselves over a lot.

The jarring physicality shatters one stereotype you might have of the 1.6 million people in the United States who use wheelchairs to get around.The way the men use their vehicles to express themselves and compete in a sport reminded me to unearth a story idea I had jotted down several years ago. I had read the obituary of Mildred Groff, an 85-year-old woman from Drumore Township who had been killed, along with her daughter, in a 2002 car crash near the Buck. Groff had lost both her legs to diabetes when she was in her 40s.One line in the obituary jumped out at me: “She enjoyed square dancing in her wheelchair with a group of friends who use wheelchairs.”

Relatives couldn’t steer me to Groff’s former dance partners, but I learned that wheelchair dancing is a source of joy for disabled people around the country.Leo Whaley, 69, who lives north of Harrisburg and has been in a wheelchair since being struck by a truck at age 5, was so into square dancing that he was on television as part of a telethon on the West Coast in the late 1950s.Square-dancing wheelchair groups were very popular then and are still going strong.Many dance companies across the country now offer wheelchair dancing. The U.S. Handicapable Square Dance Association has sponsored annual square dance conventions since 1988.

Square dancing is a nice fit for those in wheelchairs because the reverse directions and turn in place moves can be accomplished in wheelchairs.Not so the side-to-side swaying of ballroom dancing.But that didn’t stop Whaley and his late wife, Nancy, who used a wheelchair for almost all her life, from cutting the rug.

He recalls a Caribbean cruise. The couple had avoided the nightly dances because he felt silly and conspicuous.One night, they were roaming atop the ship all alone. Roving troubadours came by.Let’s dance, his wife suggested. They did. “You get some pleasure from listening to the music and imagining you are moving with it,” Whaley says.The couple was lost in the moment. When the music stopped, they were startled to see perhaps 100 people looking on admiringly.“One gentleman put a hand on my shoulder and said, ‘You two are an inspiration.’

“That’s nice, but I didn’t do it as a performance,” Whaley says, remembering.“I did it because I wanted to please my wife.”——

The Voices column is written by a rotating team of New Era staffers. It appears Mondays.