Taking a spin on the dance floor and doing the cha-cha is hard enough with two left feet. If four wheels are involved, add in the possibility of pinched toes, sore shins and wedding dress trains getting caught up.
Instructors at Roll Call Wheelchair Dance Long Island teach ballroom dancing and help their students make the most of the partner dance experience.
“We dance face to face, heart to heart and hand to hand,” said Patti Panebianco, the group’s founder. “You can’t overestimate the power of touch and looking into your partner’s eyes.”
Panebianco, 53, of Farmingdale, and Cathleen Terrano, 52, of Lake Ronkonkoma, both longtime ballroom dancers, trained with and were certified as wheelchair dance instructors by John Nyemchek, 60, dance director of Roll Call Wheelchair Dance in upstate Pearl River, 20 miles north of Manhattan. Nyemchek, along with Diane Discepolo, 61, of River Vale, New Jersey, the group’s secretary-treasurer, run the Roll Call group in Pearl River.
Panebianco said she and Terrano are expanding it to Long Island and volunteering their time because they believe so strongly in the benefits of the program.
“Everyone has ability. It’s not about disability, having that negative feeling,” Terrano said. “You don’t have to do it perfectly. We each get better at our own levels.”
Classes are held at Innovative DanceSport in Hauppauge. The next session is Aug. 27, from 1 to 3 p.m. Starting in September, classes will be offered two Sundays a month.
Panebianco said a typical class starts with a bit of socializing, and then warm-up exercises for both standing and seated dancers. Then she adds in upbeat music, and they work on basic movements such as going forward, circling and doing quarter and half turns. Since chairs are different heights, partners need to talk to see what positions work best, and people become comfortable working together. Panebianco demonstrates how to do the slow-quick-quick rhythm of a fox trot, for example, as well as basic stops.
Teachers instruct the standing partners as well as those in wheelchairs. Standing partners should be slightly offset and need to consider the wheel as their partner’s leg. They also need to watch their shins during turns and spins. Bumps are inevitable, and so are some pinched toes.
“You will get hit, it happens; and your toe is going to get run over by a wheel,” Panebianco warned. “We rotate partners so that everyone dances with everyone. It’s good to learn that way. We’re all-inclusive. And you start making conversation. Everyone learns more.”
After 40 to 45 minutes on one dance they begin to work on another ballroom dance technique, such as the cha-cha. Panebianco will adjust dance moves as needed, depending on the range of movement and strength of the wheelchair dancer. “There’s a lot of trust involved as well,” she said. “The wheelchair dancers are used to rolling, not necessarily doing turns and spins.”
A wedding dance
A desire to perform a father-daughter dance at his daughter’s wedding got John Creutzberger, 56, and his daughter, Lauren DeMarco, 31, both of Blue Point, in for lessons before her June 30, 2016, wedding.
Creutzberger, who now works part time at Suffolk County Community College’s Eastern Campus in Riverhead, sustained a spinal cord injury in 2007. “Structured dance was very new to me, and Lauren was also learning it,” Creutzberger said. “Patti was great with instructions, and using words to help you do the movements.”
Panebianco choreographed “Sweet Child O’ Mine” by Guns N’ Roses for them, DeMarco said, then taught them the steps.
“She taught me how to dance and how to interact with him in the wheelchair, and she taught me how instead of throwing an arm out, you come at it a different way and push into it,” DeMarco said.
Her father recalled that they had 10 or 12 lessons to learn their steps.
“Each week we did a certain section of it, and then at the end we could string it all together,” Creutzberger said. “And we practiced at home, too. It was good bonding time with my daughter.”
The wedding and reception were held at Danford’s Hotel, Marina & Spa in Port Jefferson. “It felt a lot different to do it in front of a crowd,” Creutzberger added. “I’m not really a showboat, I feel uncomfortable doing that, but see what you do for your children?”
The performance went well, but wasn’t without a bit of drama.
“We were doing spins, and his wheel got stuck on the train of my dress,” DeMarco said. “We were cracking up. But we were so drilled in, we knew the steps and we could jump right back in. It was so much fun.
“Before my dad’s accident we used to dance all the time around the house, just turn the music on and go,” she added. “To have that taken away and then given back, it was wonderful.”
Getting in the spin of it
That ability to learn a new skill and have a new experience is key for Stephanie Kane as well.
Kane, 33, of Smithtown, has been to several Roll Call classes and plans to attend more. Three years ago she had a leg amputated above the knee as a result of a spindle cell sarcoma cancer diagnosis. “I found it [wheelchair dancing] when I was looking for things to do,” she said. “I love it; plus it’s fun and I work up a sweat.”
Kane said she is happy to add dancing into the exercise mix with swimming and some trips to the gym, with the bonus of new faces.
Because of her medical issues, she sometimes needs to take it slow, especially when there’s a spin. Kane said she lets her standing partner know.
Kane also notes she needs to remember to bring gloves so she doesn’t get blisters on her hands from turning the wheels of her chair. “I like the socializing part of it, but really, I love just being there,” she said. “They’re warm and make me feel good. It’s enjoyable and it’s new faces. And I enjoy the music.”
The wheelchair dancers tone their back and arm muscles and broaden their sense of what they can accomplish when they set their minds to learning a new skill, Panebianco said. They also achieve better balance, flexibility and range of motion.
Dance instructor Marjory Miller, of Fort Salonga, fell in love with the concept and the dancers as she helped Anthony DiFranco film classes in 2016 for his third documentary, “Roll Call: A Dance Story.” Viewers can watch a trailer for the film on Vimeo now while the documentary makes the rounds of festivals, and view the entire 44-minute film via Vimeo after Nov. 1.
DiFranco, of Northport, is an English professor at Suffolk County Community College’s Ammerman Campus in Selden, and is a dance instructor at the school’s Michael J. Grant Campus in Brentwood.
“The people in the film are really the film — they’re honest, happy and functional,” he said. “They wind up making you feel good. And the volunteers, from the professionals to the high school kids who volunteer for rehearsals, the unselfishness of the people who help them is more inspiring.”
When Miller first was asked to go to a wheelchair dance class, she said she thought it would be depressing. “It’s the opposite,” she said. “They are a true inspiration. You can see the progress they’ve made, and after one time with us, they see the possibilities.”
There are some safety considerations, Panebianco noted. The wheelchair dancers need to use a seat belt, and the wheelchair should have tip bars, which extend down and out from the rear of the chair and stop it if it starts to fall backward. “That’s a huge preventative safety measure,” Panebianco said. “We err on the side of caution.”
Students are mostly in their late 20s and early 30s and up, she said, although some children have tried it out. Standing partners are always needed as well.
Nyemchek finds the classes a celebration, and said those in wheelchairs are initially some of the biggest skeptics.
“We encourage people to put aside their fear and try it,” he said. “The magic is in the dance and the music and forgetting your distractions.”
Terrano, who has been diagnosed with sarcoidosis, an inflammatory disease that commonly targets the lungs and the lymph nodes, knows that one day she, too, could be in a wheelchair. She said she holds on to the knowledge that she will still be able to dance, something she’s been doing for close to 50 years.
“That’s been part of this journey for me, seeing color instead of seeing the grayness,” she said.
GROOVE TO THE MUSIC
Roll Call Wheelchair Dance of Long Island next meets Aug. 27 from 1 to 3 p.m. at Innovative DanceSport, where owner Michael Rodriguez donates space to host the program. Starting in September, classes will be offered two Sundays a month. The dance studio is housed inside MVP Fitness, 100 Parkway Drive South, Hauppauge. Dancers should enter through the MVP doors under the canopy; the dance studio entrance is to the left of the reception desk.
The cost is $15 per person per session for wheelchair dancers as well as those who would like to learn to be a standing partner.
For more information, contact Patti Panebianco at 516-909-1686, firstname.lastname@example.org, or Cathleen Terrano at 631-793-4169, email@example.com.
Private wheelchair dance lessons are available at Dance With Me, 3 Pratt Blvd., Glen Cove. Call 516-656-9500 to schedule a first lesson for $49; tuition plan set for future lessons.