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Posted November 29, 2017

Dancing on Two Wheels

Cal State East Bay students participate in wheelchair ballroom class, prepare for ICE-X showcase Dec. 2

Students practice their wheelchair ballroom skills as part of a new course at Cal State East Bay.
Natalie Feulner

In a dance studio lit by twinkling lights at the back of the Cal State East Bay campus, a dozen students — half of whom are seated in wheelchairs — begin moving to the count of American DanceWheels Foundation Teacher Derrick Williams.

“Five-six-seven-eight and quick, quick, slow, quick, quick, slow,” Williams instructs while seated in a wheelchair.  

On the floor dancing with the students is Cal State East Bay Assistant Professor Eric Kupers.

The students are part of Kupers’ Inclusive Interdisciplinary Ensemble class, which focuses on teaching them how to make dance and performance inclusive for all body types and abilities. It’s a skill Williams says the students will likely need as professionals entering a more diverse and inclusive dance world.

“Inclusivity has become an important part of our culture, and learning how to facilitate inclusivity will be important,” Williams said. “And, considering the size of the disabled community and the growing trend towards greater inclusiveness, I believe there will be many more opportunities emerging to apply these skills.”

The course will be an ongoing partnership between Cal State East Bay and American DanceWheels, but this quarter, students are learning the salsa and rumba in preparation for a department performance in early December.

As for why wheelchair-based classes are important? That’s easy, Williams said.

“It makes available an activity for disabled people that they have generally felt excluded from.”

“It makes available an activity for disabled people that they have generally felt excluded from,” he explained. “This is even more important when you consider the importance of dance in our society. We have high school dances, dance clubs, first dances, dancing as a performance art and movies about dancing, and yet, if a wheelchair user hasn't seen someone else in a wheelchair dance before, they may believe it impossible to participate.”

Students in Kupers’ class must learn both parts, using sports wheelchairs to practice with if they aren’t already wheelchair users. Lifelong dancer and participant Kyra Birks said the experience has not only given her a new appreciation for different abilities, but her own body as well.

“I never really thought of all the different ways different body types move, so I wanted to open my eyes to what other people can do and [I] realize that everybody can dance,” she says. “I’ve never been in a wheelchair before so to be able to use a chair and see what it feels like to have to move using it has been cool. Everybody has different things they have to deal with, whether it’s disabilities or injuries, and this has really taught me that you need to appreciate yourself and the body you have.”  

Kupers has long wanted to bring ballroom dancing classes to Cal State East Bay, but it was important to him that they were integrated and available to all dancers. So when he met Williams and found out American DanceWheels offered free programming, with access to a local seated teacher, he knew he had to incorporate it into his curriculum as soon as possible.

“I wanted my students to get exposure to different mobilities, and for most people, this class is the first time they’ve used a wheelchair,” he says. “But it’s also a powerful lesson for them because the teacher (Williams) has a disability and yet is the one leading, so it shows [them] that seated dancers can not only do ballroom too, but there’s a whole additional level of skill required.”

The Inclusive Interdisciplinary Ensemble dance class will perform what they've learned as part of Cal State East Bay’s ICE-X showcase Dec. 2 at 7:30 p.m. in the University Dance Studio, PE 140.

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