Wheelchair dancers keep everyone moving

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Wheelchair Dancers Organization of San Diego is looking for able-bodied dancers to partner up with wheelchair users. The organization is one of only two established ballroom and Latin wheelchair dance programs in the nation.

Owner of the newly opened Dance Whisperer studio in El Cajon, Joe Torres has made it his mission to teach wheelchair users. Each Saturday afternoon from 2 to 3 p.m. at the Challenge Center in La Mesa, a dozen volunteer able-bodied dancers show up to partner with wheelchair users.

Wheelchair Dancers Organization of San Diego is looking for able-bodied dancers to partner up with wheelchair users. The organization is one of only two established ballroom and Latin wheelchair dance programs in the nation.

Owner of the newly opened Dance Whisperer studio in El Cajon, Joe Torres has made it his mission to teach wheelchair users. Each Saturday afternoon from 2 to 3 p.m. at the Challenge Center in La Mesa, a dozen volunteer able-bodied dancers show up to partner with wheelchair users.

Torres says that a better name for “able-bodied” is “standers” or better yet, “leaders.” Last Saturday, Torres played the song “Stand by Me” to teach basic Latin rhythms like bachata. Torres took the hand of Joanna Mari Capstack, who is not a newcomer to wheelchair dancing. The two of them showed the bachata dance steps to leaders and followers, moving into a “cross-over” step in one direction, then backing up and turning around for the other direction.

“There’s absolutely no huge pressure on them,” Torres said. “People will often do their own thing, moving back and forth with each other.” The number of wheelchair dancers has grown to a lively group often present at the Concerts on the Promenade in El Cajon. Torres and his girlfriend, Sheri Malvestuto, are just two of the volunteers who partner with the wheelchair dancers.

A couple of weeks ago, an announcement was made at the Concert on the Promenade that Concert on the Promenade that a Nov. 12, the same day as the El Cajon Centennial, a dress rehearsal for setting the Guinness World Record in wheelchair dancing would take place on the Promenade. “We hope to get more than forty dancers out there,” Torres said.

The actual date for the world record will be in February, 2013, Wheelchair Dancers needs as many volunteers as possible to turn out for dancing on November 12 for the practice run. The free lessons at the Challenger Center every Saturday are free and open to anyone. Kevin Ver Hage is a regular volunteer leader. He shows up at most of the lessons at the Challenge Center.

He maneuvers a manual wheelchair easily, laughing good-naturedly when he gets up and walks, astonishing everyone. “I grew up with both my parents in wheelchairs,” Ver Hage explained. “I used to go with them all the time to the Wheel- A-Cades, which was a wheelchair square dance group.” Wheelchair Dance in San Diego is the brainchild of Beverly Weurding, who was diagnosed 17 years ago with muscular dystrophy. She had an unrelenting desire to dance again and located William Valencia, a professional ballroom and Latin dance teacher.

Valencia had obtained his certification as a Wheel Chair Dance Instructor. Weurding and Valencia have worked together in presenting classes at Sharp Grossmont Hospital, which received the Best Practice Award from the California Hospital Association for creating the wheelchair dance program. Wheelchair dancing has proven to benefit the dancer in improved balance, flexibility, range of motion and increased strength.

The dancers’ faces reflect the added delights of moving together as a tight-knit community. Wheelchair dancer Jen Kalaher said that she finds it a big stress relief for her. Alan Wubemhorst, who received his degree from SDSU in Communications, admitted that he needed something to do with his life once he graduated. “I love to meet people, and I needed to get out of the house. I look forward to dancing,” he said. Lainey Lewis had not danced since the 8th grade until she met Wheelchair Dancers. “I love to dance. I used to make up my own dance moves in the 80s,” she said.

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