After a 1992 shooting left Charleen Harden in a wheelchair, she thought she’d never dance again. She was wrong.
Nine months ago , Harden began ballroom dance lessons. Delighted with the changes ballroom has brought to her life, she’s started a class for other disabled dancers.
“Ballroom dance is good exercise and a lot of fun,” she says. “It gets the heart rate up.”
Ken Howard of A&I Butterfly Ballroom and Dance Training Center teaches the class, adapting the movements to each individual student.
Howard says he spends most of his time teaching the able-bodied dancers. “They have to get the physics of the chair,” he explains.
“I’ve tried to develop better ways to maneuver a person in a wheelchair around,” Howard says. “We have people who are totally disabled. I’m working on different dances and rhythms and trying to get people used to the idea. I also have to teach them how to maneuver the chair so it doesn’t run over their own feet.”
Howard wants to make wheelchair ballroom as expressive and beautiful as regular ballroom is. “I want to teach the chair to dance,” he says. “There are lots of spins, turns, twists and underarm spins.
“I’m also trying to teach wheelchair-bound people how to hold on to their own weight, so they don’t tip over,” Howard says. “There are certain positions that work really well and certain positions that don’t work at all.”
In his search, Howard has practiced dancing in a wheelchair, and yes, he’s tipped over. But, like Harden, he’s not only hooked, he’s determined. “I’m working to create a syllabus and a methodology from the ground up,” he says.
While wheelchair dance is nothing new, in most areas of the country it’s open only to paraplegics, who are paralyzed from the waist down. Howard refuses to exclude anyone, no matter the extent of their disability.
“One young man has only one arm he can communicate with,” he says. “Yet when he’s dancing, he’s just laughing and laughing.”
And, yes, wheelchair dance is good for your health. “It’s a tremendous amount of exercise,” Howard says.
“A lot of people don’t realize how aerobic it is.
“Nothing lifts the spirits better than dancing,” he says. “As it says in Psalms, ‘You’ve turned my mourning into dance.’ You can’t be sad when you’re dancing.”
Howard is hopeful that perceptions can be changed. “Most people see the chair, they don’t see the person sitting in the chair,” he says. “I want to get away from that. I don’t think of Charleen as being disabled at all.”
Despite her enthusiasm now, Harden was a hard sell when her sister Renee first approached her about the dance class. “She took modern dance at SSU and enjoyed it,” Harden says. “She decided she wanted to learn ballroom and joined the Moon River Dancers. She knew dancing was one of my goals and asked me if I wanted to go with her.
“We went around and around about it,” Harden says. “She said, ‘Do you want to come?’ and I said, ‘No, I don’t want to go watch something I can’t do.’ We went back and forth until I finally gave in.”
Renee Harden, who is now her sister’s dance partner, remembers it a little differently. She says Charleen never really did give in and continued to resist, until Renee invited her to a movie and took her to a dance social instead.
“She’s still asking where that theater on Whitemarsh Island is,” Renee says with a laugh.
That first dance social proved to be a life-changing event when Moon River instructor J.J. Kane did a fox trot with Harden. “After, she came up and said, ‘That was so neat!” Renee remembers. “I said, ‘And you said you couldn’t dance.’ She called me a few choice words -- all in sisterly love, of course.”
Renee remembers the moment her sister said she’d never dance again. “It kind of broke my heart, but I knew she’d be able to dance,” Renee says.
When the two were growing up, dance was a vital part of their lives. “We would dance every Saturday afternoon to Soul Train,” Renee says. “As young ladies, we’d go dancing. We weren’t interested in clubbing, drinking or finding boyfriends, we were just interested in dancing.
“We always watched ballroom dance on PBS,” Renee says. “It’s like all those things have come together now in to this.”
After a few basic lessons, Harden fell in love with ballroom. “She got the idea, ‘If I can do this, anyone can do this,’” Renee says.
Kane said the Moon River Dancers had been looking for someone like Charleen. “We went into nursing homes to perform and found we could include people in wheelchairs,” he says. “We wanted to know the limit of what we could do with them. Charleen agreed to be our guinea pig. She found out she could dance, then she took it and went crazy.”
Harden was invited to join the Moon River Dancers dance team, and she did. “We’re still working on the Merengue, but she’s learned the Argentine Tango,” Renee says. “It’s ten times harder than the American Tango. I love the fact that I get to dance with my sister again.”
Harden is thankful her sister never gave up on her. “I’m glad I lost that one to my sister,” she says. “We’ve had so much fun dancing. I want more and more people to know about it and become involved.”
Being Harden’s dance partner has been good for Renee. “I’m learning the man’s part, which makes me a better dancer,” she says. “I’ve learned how to lead steps. I have to make sure there is a clear path for my partner.”
Kane and his wife Elizabeth give both Charleen and Renee private dance lessons. “After the first class, I told Elizabeth how helpful J.J. was,” Harden says. “She said, ‘He learned more from you than you did from him.’ After that class, he was thinking and thinking of ways to expand ballroom dance for the disabled.”
“We teach them as much as possibly can be done within the realm of the chair,” Kane says. “Right now, that’s everything but the foot kicks.”
Kane took a standard ballroom syllabus and starting going down the list. “There are hundreds of moves in ballroom,” he says. “We find the ones a disabled person can do.
“My wife‘s a stickler for form,” Kane says. “We make the most out of what they have to draw attention away from what they don’t have.”
The Kanes have competed in ballroom dance and have been teaching it for years. “We do this ourselves,” Kane says. “My wife and I are both rather large and we must compensate for that. We do what we do well to draw attention.”
The hardest part of teaching wheelchair ballroom is retraining the dancers to use their muscles differently. “If it’s a man in the wheelchair, he must learn to use his upper body to lead his partner,” Kane says. “Because of the chair, those leads have to be a little broader.”
The Rehabilitation Institute at Memorial Health will bring the Moon River Dancers in to teach patients how to do wheelchair ballroom dance. “This is going to be something we’ve never done before,” says Jami Murray, a recreation therapist at the institute.
“Any kind of activity that encourages patients to be active can be a form of exercise,” Murray says. “Anything that encourages patients to stay active and encourage independence is good for the patient.”
Beginning in January, a wheelchair ballroom dance class will be held one Saturday a month for the patients. “The Moon River Dancers will come teach and the staff will be there to assist,” Murray says. “It will be for patients who are housed in the rehabilitation unit.”
That includes people with brain injuries, spinal cord injuries, amputees, strokes, orthopedic problems and a wide range of illnesses and injuries. They all have undergone a life-changing illness or accident.
After reading about Harden and seeing her on television, Murray called her. “We are getting our spinal cord injury support group going again and I thought this would be a good outlet for the support group,” she says.
Because of a Grassroots Arts Program grant from the City of Savannah’s Cultural Affairs Department, the wheelchair ballroom dance classes are offered free of charge. “Everyone is encouraged to attend whether they’re disabled or not,” Harden says.
“The person in the wheelchair dances with an able-bodied person who keeps the chair going, but it’s the person in the chair who does the movements,” she says. “It’s a great workout for upper-body strength and the upper abdomen. Over time, it will actually strengthen the abdomen. I’ve noticed it in myself.”
Renee says the able-bodied partner also gets a workout. “It’s fun, but it’s a lot of hard work, too,” she says.
While it’s hard work, there are rewards. “It’s not a matter of me dragging her across the floor, I put in the same amount of work she does,” Renee says. “But when we get it right, it’s pure joy.”
The biggest reward is the look on her sister’s face. “It’s pure rapture and freedom that she’s able to do this again,” Renee says.
“And she does ask men to dance,” Renee says. “She’s on the floor more than me! She’s got guys who come looking for her, saying they want to do a fox trot. It’s so wonderful to see that. It gives me so much pleasure to see that others see her as a whole person.
“She’s regained that self-assurance most women have,” Renee says. “Now she sits up a little straighter. She’s glowing because she’s always moving. She has a deeper love of life.”
So far, class attendance has been sporadic. “We get a good crowd one month, and a slow crowd the next,”
Harden says. “It’s getting there, but I want it to go faster. We need more guys so they can dance with the ladies.” she says.
There are wheelchair dance competitions, and Harden hopes she and Renee get good enough to compete. Kane says that’s not out of the question.
“Charleen is a very, very powerful person,” he says. “I think she’ll do really well. There’s no reason why she can’t.”
“Eventually, I’d like to have a disabled dance group to do performances,” Charleen says. “That would help people realize the disabled are not limited. I want to dispel the myth that the disabled can’t do what the able-bodied people can do. Just reach for it.”
Harden not only encourages disabled people to do what they can, she encourages them to become fully involved with the community. “Don’t hide, get out and let the public see you,” she says. “Talk with people and interact with people. You’re going to run into people who will say the wrong thing, but they’ll learn from you that disabled people are just people, too.”
The class meets the fourth Saturday of the month from 2-4:30 p.m., and will meet again on Dec. 23. There is enough funding left for the class to meet up until June.
Harden hopes to get another grant or sponsorship not only to continue the class, but to add a second instructor. “We’re working on a campaign to try to get additional funding to give classes in the summer and try to get the program going in the fall,” she says.
The cost of having an instructor certified to teach wheelchair ballroom dance is $1,500, which under the grant’s terms, must be funded privately. That hasn’t been a set-back for Harden.
“We’d like to get several instructors certified in wheelchair ballroom dance,” she says. “When the hospitals get young patients in, we can show them, ‘Yes, you can dance and you can dance from a wheelchair.’”
The Moon River Dancers, a local chapter of the U.S. Amateur Ballroom Dance Association, offer Wheelchair and Disabled Ballroom Dance classes every fourth Saturday of the month from 2-4:30 p.m. at the Delaware Center, 1815 Lincoln St. The next session will be held Dec. 23. There is no cost to participate. For information, call Charleen Harden at 308-7303 or firstname.lastname@example.org.