The Contours signed with Motown in 1960 and 50 years later I was dancing to one of their songs in the streets of Philly, as part of what is believed to be the first ever Crip Flash Mob*.
Along with hundreds of other academics and activists, I was attending the Society for Disability Studies annual conference.
Some of us decided to take over an intersection with our wheelchairs, canes and crutches, so we could shake it to The Contours’ Do You Love Me (Now That I Can Dance).
It was an exhilarating experience – so exhilarating that I completely forgot the choreographed moves we’d practiced over and over. Despite a little organized chaos, it was a beautiful experience. I was surrounded by people with all different disabilities and we were dancing in the street.
I’m at the age where I go to a lot of weddings; my friends are getting married right and left.
Fortunately, they all seem to know how to throw a good party, which in my book means good food, good music and lots of dancing. My partner, Ryan, and I both like to dance.
We’ve had our share of spontaneous dance parties in the living room or driving down the road, but I’ve always felt a little hesitant to get out on the dance floor at weddings.
There’s the practical reason: dancing while 3 1/2 feet tall means I’m likely to get stepped on inadvertently.
And there’s the logistical problem of dancing with my man, who is more than 2 feet taller than me.
But more than either of those, is the emotional hesitation – the plain old fear of being something to stare at.
In life, I get stared at a lot, and it doesn’t stop me from doing what I want to do. So why would breaking it down on the dance floor be anything different?
I think there are two reasons (beyond the fact that nearly everyone’s a little nervous dancing in front of strangers).
For one, dancing is a form of self-expression. I think I’m usually pretty good at expressing myself, but mostly I do that through the parts of my body that I have in common with other people – like my mouth or my hands or through my facial expressions.
Although I’m mostly comfortable with my disability, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit a little self-consciousness here and there.
No one on the dance floor moves like me.
I wonder how different from them I look, moving in my own adapted way. (Maybe someone needs to have a wedding in a dance studio so we can be surrounded by mirrors – that way, I can see what I look like and everyone will be so distracted checking themselves out that they won’t bother staring at me!)
Secondly, to enjoy dancing you really have to let yourself go. You have to just be in your body and let the music tell you what to do.
To me, it’s the letting go that makes dancing so fun. However, it can be pretty hard to let go when you feel like unknown friends and family of the bride and groom are curiously watching you.
For years I danced on my feet whenever I was out with friends.
Just last September, we attended a wedding and even though I wanted to dance, I just didn’t have the energy.
Ryan suggested I dance in my wheelchair.
That’s the night we tried dancing together that way for the first time.
Dancing in my chair is far easier physically, because I can use my strong arms, rather than my weaker lower body.
I thought dancing in my chair might also be easier on me emotionally, since people tend to stare at me less when I’m in it.
However, unexpected emotions popped up.
For nearly the whole first song, which was a slow one, I had tears streaming down my face.
I was crying because I felt so loved and accepted by Ryan, who had no hesitation or fear of being “that guy who has the partner in the wheelchair.”
He’s never had hesitation of being “that guy that has the Little Person partner” either, but something about his willingness to adapt to my need to adapt was very moving.
I was also crying because somehow, dancing in my chair for the first time, it hit me that this is my life – and my life is different from other people’s because I use a machine to move my body. I don’t go around pretending I don’t have a disability and am certainly not ashamed of it, but sometimes I do forget.
It’s not like I didn’t know I was “different” before, but sometimes the simplest things remind me.
After the first song, I was done crying and that’s when we really started having fun. We were trying all sorts of moves with my chair (the most fun are those with twirls!). I can’t say we were good – it can be hard to work with the momentum of rolling and to stay in rhythm while pushing the chair – but we got better with every song and we were laughing ourselves silly the entire time.
So often, my disability provides the opportunity for me to learn important life lessons. Everyone feels self-conscious sometimes. Challenging ourselves to try new things is rewarding. Adapting and allowing others to adapt is an act of love.
Just last week, we took a trip South to attend the wedding of one of my high school buddies. In our re-united crew was an old friend who is now a dance instructor. I was telling him about how I’d love to learn how to dance well in my chair, especially because Ryan and I are planning our own wedding and it would be fun to show off our skills on the big day.
He told me about professional dance troops that include wheelchair users and about dance lessons for people with disabilities.
Bolstered by my own progress in accepting myself and my pride in crips’ ability to adapt and have fun in the process, I had no hesitation to dance that night. When we got out on the floor, my friend reminded me that there’s no right way to dance – you just have to let the music move you.
* There are a lot of cool images if you Google “wheelchair dancing” and click on ‘images’
Listen to The Contours song: Do You Love Me (Now That I Can Dance)