I’m just going to come out and say it – I had two left feet before my health deteriorated to the point where I needed the wheelchair and I certainly have two left wheels now if that’s even a thing! Honestly though, if you’ve been following along in our wedding first dance journey on Instagram (@disabledtravelwithgeorgina), you may have seen some of the outtake videos from this dance session and they are absolutely hilarious but do definitively prove that neither Richard or I were born to be natural dancers! We have been so grateful for the patient guidance of Helen from Freewheelin Dance (https://www.freewheelindance.com) who are an inter-abled, inclusive dance group who meet for fun weekly sessions and also have a competition group who perform routines within competitions such as Paradance, Inclusive Sports Festivals and even World Cheerleading Championships!
Richard and I were so thankful for the one-to-one video call tuition that Helen gave us when she choreographed our wedding first dance! Being young, of course we do bop around (as much as my spinal nerve damage allows) in a nightclub after far too many glasses of gin and tonic. On a slight tangent, we once had an awful miscommunication in a really noisy bar entrance area where Richard went to a burly door bouncer to ask whether there was ramped access for me, perhaps around the side of the building (or, unfortunately, at the very back of the building where the smelly bins are *eye roll*). Upon seeing that Richard was pointing to his partner in a wheelchair, this large gentleman returned with three other security staff who all proceeded to lift my wheelchair above their heads to carry me up the flight of steps without even asking whether they were ok to do so! Talk about asking for consent!! Looking back, it’s a funny story to tell but it certainly wasn’t funny at the time as we ended up inside a building with only stepped access and I had a panic attack in a full nightclub! Luckily, Richard and my wonderful friends knew how to deal with it and got me out of the club in the end. Not a dance experience to remember though unfortunately!
Beside the inevitable “bopping my upper body or head to music”, I don’t particularly dance that much. Richard and I do partner over some summers with a charity called Attitude is Everything who help disabled and deaf people gain access to music gigs and festivals. Therefore, we occasionally twirl my wheelchair on the disabled stage viewing platforms but we have never dreamt of doing a choreographed dance as a couple! That is, until he proposed!
Of course, I am more than thrilled to be dancing with the man I am going to spend my life with and my best friend but it is very daunting to have all eyes on us when we have very minimal dancing ability. Plus, I feel like it would even be hard to adopt the traditional ‘Get Out of Jail Free Card’ where newly married couples stand in one spot and sway since we are at very different height levels when I am sat in my wheelchair and he is stood up at almost 6ft. So, when I heard about the work that Helen does at Freewheelin, I was so excited to partner with her! Helen came out with this amazing quote when I first spoke with her that her motto when working with any dancer, whatever your disability or ability is; ‘focus on what you can do and not what you can’t’. I think this resonated with me as any exercise class, particularly something as performative and eye-catching as the beauty of dance, can make you self-conscious and withdrawn easily. Plus, we all have this inner ableism inside telling us that our mobility aids such as wheelchairs or walking sticks make us less beautiful, attractive and graceful. I believe that, particularly on such a special, focal day like your wedding day, these thoughts can invade and make you feel “lesser than” other people and “less worthy” of eyes on you as you dance etc. There are many ways to combat this but I believe that my dance classes with Helen have certainly evolved my confidence. Richard is more of an introverted character naturally (opposites attract according to the saying eh?!) so the Zoom video calls have been a Godsend for his projection of confidence surrounding the dancing section of the wedding in particular. Helen was so friendly and bubbly throughout the video call.
Obviously, things have had to evolve for her and Freewheelin in general since Covid-19 has hit the scene but she said that the members of her regular group classes have adapted well to online classes and that many dancers have actually enjoyed the fact that they have not had to use energy travelling to the hall the group usually rehearse in. Plus, the group have even had new dancers join them from elsewhere in the UK to Birmingham for their Tuesday and Friday groups for adults and children (aged 9 years+). Obviously, if you are hiring Freewheelin for a specific dance then there is no age grouping but I do love that the Tuesday and Friday classes are mixed gender and have all abilities integrated so if you have a friend, sister or partner who would like to join in the fun dance classes and only one of you uses a mobility aid then that is no problem; I am sure both of you will be equally exhausted by the end of the session and ready for a sneaky G&T or two (unless you’re 9 years old of course haha!).
For me, one of the special things about Freewheelin is that they have such a huge mix of groups and “draws”! Helen competes in Paradance herself and with the team surrounding her. She has the background in dance training to adapt to things like different ability levels or movement capabilities if you let her know. She was really great with me when I communicated all about my spinal cord damage and consequent nerve pain as she allowed me rests for fatigue levels and worked the routine to my personal ability level. Every disability is different and every person’s body is different and would be, even if there were no medical conditions involved. Helen does this one-to-one private tuition such as the dancing sessions that Richard and I have had for our wedding dance for £25 an hour and would organise in advance how many sessions the complexity of your dance would usually need; wedding dances usually need around four sessions. Also, there are regular “fun” and competition classes that you can find all about on the Freewheelin website. I will go into more detail about in my next post about Helen and her wonderful dance community. All the dancers I have met are so vibrant and great; they have fab skills too and created this amazing video to the music of Lady Gaga!
I have only joined in a few sessions of the group work with Helen and have already found a family feel to the sessions and how supportive they are. I felt this resonate from Helen when we were rehearsing our first dance as there were certain complexities involved such as working out the style of wheelchair I would be using on the big day and where the steering joystick was located; this would have an effect on how Richard would be able to hold hands with me in the waltz hold position. Look at me getting all technical (ish haha!). Although Helen isn’t a wheelchair user herself, she experienced an injury through dancing at one point and set Freewheelin up after considering how she would have felt if she hadn’t recovered her mobility levels to her full previous dancing capacity. It is absolutely true that many dance companies exclude students who are disabled or chronically ill as routines are not designed for bodies that perform or move in any other way than the standard, abled format and these “different” bodies are often downgraded to something “other” than the norm. I love Freewheelin as it gives badass disabled people a chance to meet, have fun, dance, have a natter, exercise and also not feel excluded in any way.
Exercise is amazing for the mental health, so is socialisation, community and not being isolated and Freewheelin is a wonderful way to include all of these things in people’s weekly routine. Helen not only works with her amazing groups and private students, she also works with a range of charities; including Cerebral Palsy Midlands, Midlands Mencap and Spectrum day centre where she runs classes for dancers with profound learning disabilities who, looking at the videos, have way more star potential and eye-catching dance moves than I will ever have!!
I was definitely mildly nervous when I first started partnering with Helen as dancing is not in my list of the top 100 skills in my repertoire. I have had experience in the past with feeling excluded or like an “added extra” to show off in performances due to being disabled. Helen made Richard and I feel none of this. Her video call was friendly and her instructions here fun but also easy for a dance beginner to follow. Despite our clear lack of rhythm and skill, Helen was wonderful with us and patiently took us through waltz technique and counted us through our first dance song. We have even managed to practice our first dance on our own since with my powered wheelchair. The fact that she adapted it for my fatigue and pain levels was exceptional and I would recommend Freewhelin very highly for anyone needing formal dance tuition (for a wedding etc) or even just fancying joining in a boogie or two during the fun Tues/ Fri group dance classes!