Dog competition

Dancers hope this adapted ballroom competition is the first of many in the United States

Last Saturday, Dance Mobility’s Adapted Ballroom Dancing Competition brought together more than a dozen people from across the country to compete in the first ballroom dancing competition in the United States for those who use a wheelchair or prosthetics. .

Cheryl Angelelli, Paralympic medalist and quadriplegic, and Evan Mountain, co-owner of Fred Astaire Dance Studio in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, are the co-founders of Dance Mobility. Established in 2015, the program is supported by the Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan foundation and offers free monthly group wheelchair classes taught by professional ballroom dancers.

“Representation matters, being seen matters, walking into a room and seeing people who look like you is important,” Angelelli said.

/ Sylvia Jarrus for NPR

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Sylvia Jarrus for NPR

Deb Dahl does her daughter Eve’s hair before the Dance Mobility Adapted Ballroom Competition.

Eve Dahl's mother combs her hair while her dancing shoes and competition dresses lie on a hotel room bed.

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Sylvia Jarrus for NPR

Eve Dahl’s mother combs her hair while her dancing shoes and competition dresses lie on a hotel room bed.

Eve Dahl has her makeup done before the competition.

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Sylvia Jarrus for NPR

Eve Dahl has her makeup done before the competition.

Wisconsin's Eve Dahl and her Great Dane service dog, Finn, come downstairs to do their makeup before the competition.

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Sylvia Jarrus for NPR

Wisconsin’s Eve Dahl and her Great Dane service dog, Finn, come downstairs to do their makeup before the competition.

Eve Dahl and Ernie Olivas at Dance Mobility's Adapted Ballroom Dancing Competition.

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Sylvia Jarrus for NPR

Eve Dahl and Ernie Olivas at Dance Mobility’s Adapted Ballroom Dancing Competition.

Michigan's Jonathan Bowie greets a friend after the competition.

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Sylvia Jarrus for NPR

Michigan’s Jonathan Bowie greets a friend after the competition.

Angelelli’s competitive spirit and natural athletic prowess led her to rank seventh in the world for wheelchair ballroom dancing in 2017. However, access and finances are a barrier for many, as competitions are often held abroad. Angelelli was convinced that she wanted to provide these opportunities for dancers in the United States. She and her partner, Tamerlan Gadirove, competed nationally and internationally at the Para Dance Sport competition.

“Even though the dancers have always been very welcoming at other competitions where we’re up against able-bodied standing couples, it’s just different,” Angelelli said.

For 14-year-old Eve Dahl, the chance to compete with other wheelchair users was worth the 7-hour drive from Wisconsin with her dance partner, Ernie Olivas, her parents, Deborah and Lance, and their service dog Great Dane, Finn, 6, who looks more like a small horse.

Dahl suffers from osteogenesis imperfecta, also known as brittle bone disease, a group of genetic disorders that lead to bones that break easily. This did not prevent her from pursuing lyrical dancing since the age of 5 and, for 3 years, ballroom dancing as a new challenge.

“Both are very special to me,” she said.

Eve Dahl (top left), Joanne McConaghie and Ann Knaggs (top right), Zoey Spencer and her father, Neil (bottom left) and Jonathan Bowie (bottom right) pose for portraits at the contest of ballroom dancing from Dance Mobility. "I am an above knee amputee," Knaggs said, "and I always say that ballroom dancing is physical therapy, but fun." Ann and Joanne met in the ballroom and became fast friends.

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Sylvia Jarrus for NPR

Eve Dahl (top left), Joanne McConaghie and Ann Knaggs (top right), Zoey Spencer and her father, Neil (bottom left) and Jonathan Bowie (bottom right) pose for portraits at the contest of ballroom dancing from Dance Mobility. “I’m an above-knee amputee,” Knaggs said, “and I always say ballroom dancing is physical therapy, but fun.” Ann and Joanne met in the ballroom and became fast friends.

“I’ve really never had the opportunity to dance in an environment that suits someone like me – I’ve always danced with able-bodied people – so I’m delighted to be able to find people who know how to lead me and adapt,” Dahl said. “It’s that kind of special environment that’s curated for you.”

Dancers and their families hope this is just the start of new competitive ballroom dancing opportunities for dancers in the United States

“It’s good to see the United States catching up with what the rest of the world is doing and I hope it continues to gain momentum,” said Lance, Eve’s father.

“She’s always loved being on stage and performing – ever since she was little – so that’s very much her thing.”

Familiar waltz, tango, cha-cha tunes as well as more contemporary performers like Bruno Mars played over the gym’s speakers with a raucous crowd cheering each dancer.

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/ Sylvia Jarrus for NPR

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Sylvia Jarrus for NPR

Paralympic medalist Cheryl Angelelli and founder of Dance Mobility Adapted Ballroom Dancing competition dances with Tamerlan Gadirov in the competition.

Left: An audience member records dancers participating in Dance Mobility's Adapted Ballroom Competition.  Right: The competition dancers' trophies are placed on a table.

/ Sylvia Jarrus for NPR

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Sylvia Jarrus for NPR

Left: An audience member records dancers participating in Dance Mobility’s Adapted Ballroom Competition. Right: The competition dancers’ trophies are placed on a table.

Robin Wooten wipes tears from her eyes during Dance Mobility's Adapted Ballroom Dancing competition.  Before Wooten was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, she danced in the ballroom and taught her son how to dance.

/ Sylvia Jarrus for NPR

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Sylvia Jarrus for NPR

Robin Wooten wipes tears from her eyes during Dance Mobility’s Adapted Ballroom Dancing competition. Before Wooten was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, she danced in the ballroom and taught her son how to dance. “It’s amazing,” Wooten said. “I don’t know them personally, but I swear they are my family because they share my same fight. … My tears are tears of joy.”

Zoey Spencer dances with her father, Neil, before they compete.

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Sylvia Jarrus for NPR

Zoey Spencer dances with her father, Neil, before they compete.

Zoey Spencer, 11, from Michigan, shows her judges' scorecard after competing with her father, Neil, in Dance Mobility's adaptive ballroom dancing competition.

/ Sylvia Jarrus for NPR

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Sylvia Jarrus for NPR

Zoey Spencer, 11, from Michigan, shows her judges’ scorecard after competing with her father, Neil, in Dance Mobility’s adaptive ballroom dancing competition.

A crowd cheers for dancers in Dance Mobility's adaptive ballroom dancing competition at the Roeper School in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan earlier this month.

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Sylvia Jarrus for NPR

A crowd cheers for dancers in Dance Mobility’s adaptive ballroom dancing competition at the Roeper School in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan earlier this month.

Eve Dahl, with her service dog, Finn, at Dance Mobility's Adapted Ballroom Dancing Competition.

/ Sylvia Jarrus for NPR

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Sylvia Jarrus for NPR

Eve Dahl, with her service dog, Finn, at Dance Mobility’s Adapted Ballroom Dancing Competition.

Robin Wooten, 52, wiped away tears as he watched a couple who recently married perform in their wedding attire on Saturday. Wooten was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in his late 40s. Before her diagnosis, she danced for years with friends and even taught her son how to dance. She says her friends will still stand and dance with her now that she’s in a wheelchair, but now she sees it can be done on a competitive level.

“It’s amazing,” she said, holding back tears.

“I don’t know them personally, but I swear they are my family because they share my same fight. You want to move, dance and you don’t want people to judge you because of the wheels. My tears are tears of joy. ”

Wooten says her dream is to dance at her son’s wedding when that day comes.

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