By Sara Appel-Lennon
Sharp Grossmont Hospital offers wheelchair dance classes for free
Juan “Joe” Torres still remembers Alisa Shuman as a vivacious, sharply-dressed woman who swing-danced in a wheelchair with him at events like the El Cajon Summer Concerts in the Park.
Shuman ranked as a national first-place wheelchair dancer, even though she was paraplegic since birth and was told she would never be able to dance. After joining the nonprofit, Wheelchair Dancers Organization (WDO), she proved otherwise. Shuman passed away last year due to a lung condition, but her fortitude to make her dreams a reality still inspires dancers like Torres today.
Torres has been a ballroom dance instructor and performer for more than 20 years, specializing in Latin dance. He saw Shuman dance in the 2011 Los Angeles Abilities Expo, an adaptive sports program. Dancing with her was the first time he ever danced with anyone in a wheelchair. He enjoyed it so much, he joined the WDO, and became the director in 2012.
Beverly Weurding, former manager of community education and special events for Sharp Health Care, founded WDO. After being diagnosed with muscular dystrophy as an adult, she struggled to heal herself and concealed from her colleagues the need for a wheelchair. Growing tired of isolating, she eventually reached out for help, retired early, and enrolled in an adaptive swim class through Grossmont Hospital Rehabilitation Center. She confided to Liz Clarno, lead rehabilitation therapist, how much she missed dancing. Clarno encouraged her to find a wheelchair ballroom dance instructor so she could still dance.
Weurding found an instructor who was willing to be trained and certified to teach wheelchair dance. Thus, began the first series of ballroom and Latin wheelchair dance classes offered on the West Coast. Since August of 2008, 400 wheelchair dance classes have been offered at no charge.
In 2009, Sharp Grossmont Hospital received an award for the classes. In 2010, Women’s Leadership Institute honored Weurding with a “Women Changing the World” Award.
On April 26, 2014, World Record Setters confirmed that Wheelchair Dancers Organization showed the largest number of wheelchair dancers dancing a choreographed routine with their partners, simultaneously to the tango dance. There were 80 wheelchair dancers with their paired volunteer partners.
“Never did I envision she would take it where it went,” Clarno said.
Torres was raised in New York City in a Puerto Rican family; so dance has always been part of his life. His family danced at all life events, including funerals. Torres refers to himself as “The Dance Whisperer” because of his knack to teach people to dance, starting when he was young.
“I hope everyone dances,” he said. “Everyone has a dance in them, it’s like a smile.”
When he worked as an Arthur Murray dance instructor, he was told to slow his pace so students would sign up for more lessons.
“I felt like I was selling cars,” Torres said. He left the job and opened his own dance studio, which soon closed due to a lack of repeat students, as his former supervisor cautioned.
Torres encourages all of his students to dance and have fun. He coined the term rollers (wheelchair users) and walkers for their volunteer partners.
He works 18-hour days while preparing for a wheelchair dance performance. He often wakes up in the middle of the night with ideas dancing in his brain of how to tweak a routine, he said.
Torres is the instructor, choreographer, photographer; the one who chooses the music and costumes, and assigns partners. He also will demonstrate a roller’s proper dance steps; sometimes while sitting in a wheelchair himself.
In addition to his work with wheelchair dancers, Torres also teaches dance to fellow veterans. At 17, he joined the Navy, where he worked in aviation. “During the Vietnam War, most were fleeing from joining the military. I ran to it,” he said.
To stay connected with his military family, he teaches dance for Soldiers Who Salsa, a nonprofit program offered by the Veteran’s Administration.
“Participants call out Joe’s name in unison much like they do for Norm on the sitcom ‘Cheers,’” said Jennifer Ables, founder and executive director of Soldiers Who Salsa.
Soldiers Who Salsa started in 2010 when Ables’s supervisor, a former judge on the TV program, “So You Think You Can Dance,” asked her to teach a six-week salsa class to veterans. There are now 14 programs in five states and Washington D.C.
“I refer to the dance instructors as magicians,” said Ables, before listing some of her favorite success stories like the veteran who lost both legs and his arm in Afghanistan and still attends dance class with enthusiasm. Or the one who told her, “You reminded me what it was like to feel again.” Ables has seen couples dance together again for the first time since their wedding.
WDO is funded by the Grossmont Hospital Foundation, Christopher Reeve Foundation and other grants. Soldiers Who Salsa is funded by government grants. Both nonprofits accept private donations.
Wheelchair dance classes meet on Monday evenings through April 25 from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m., with social dancing from 6:30 to 7 p.m. in the Sharp Grossmont Hospital Auditorium at 5555 Grossmont Center Drive, La Mesa 91942. Enter through door on side of the Rehabilitation Center. Parking is free the first hour. For more information, visit wheelchairdancers.org.
Soldiers Who Salsa classes are given at the Naval Medical Center, San Diego; Naval Hospital at Camp Pendleton; Veterans Administration La Jolla Medical Center; V.A. Aspire Center in Old Town; V.A. Oceanside Clinic; and the University of San Diego Veterans Center. For more information, visit soldierswhosalsa.org.
—Sara Appel-Lennon is a creative writing instructor, children’s author and a former professional clown. Her website is sara-appel-lennon.vpweb.com.