Freestyle dancers are strapped into their chairs, doing every single move you would see a breakdancer do, even on their heads
Gemma-Louise Stevenson: ‘I play tennis and basketball, too.’ Photograph: Fabio de Paola for the Guardian.
I trained in musical theatre as an able-bodied performer and became a professional dancer, singer and actor. I was one of the dancers in the Olympic opening ceremony at London 2012 and appeared in regional productions of My Fair Lady and Guys and Dolls. Three years ago, my career stopped because of the frequent dislocations caused by my Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. My doctors told me to use a wheelchair so my joints wouldn’t be under so much strain.
There are two strings to wheelchair dance sport: Latin and ballroom (like you see on Strictly), where you can perform as one standing partner and one wheelchair user, or two wheelchair users partnering each other; and then there’s freestyle dancing, which I love. Some of the competitive freestyle dancers are strapped into their chairs, doing every single move you would see a breakdancer do, even on their heads.
I play tennis and basketball, too, but wheelchair dance is just as tiring. If you want to go for a bit of a social dance, you don’t have to break a sweat, but I try to get as sweaty as possible. The more muscle I maintain, the less frequent my dislocations are, so I do it to help minimise the effects that the condition has on my health.
It’s not just about wanting to look pretty, or becoming the next Darcey Bussell in a wheelchair – it’s the social aspect, it gives you the skills to move the chair properly. When you get told you’re in a wheelchair, they send you to wheelchair services, fit you with a chair and say, “Go off and do it.” I was scared even of moving forward, let alone quick-stepping.
People still think you can’t achieve as much as someone who’s not a wheelchair user. Wheelchair sport has shown me that my chair isn’t a barrier to me still being able to dance. It has allowed me to find my love of dance again, to rediscover that feeling I had when I was three years old and first put on a pair of ballet shoes.
My weekend workout
Years dancing? Three in a wheelchair, 27 in total
Favourite style? Street dance
Hours a week dancing? Five or six
Outfit of choice? Leggings and my Chelsea T-shirt
Five ways to get started
1 Anyone can be a standing partner, don’t feel as if you have to be a professional dancer or know a disabled person to go to wheelchair dance. If you’re into dancing, just ring up and go along.
2 If you’re able-bodied, experiment with a wheelchair. You don’t know how hard it is to manoeuvre until you’ve used one. Instructors always go with spare wheelchairs – ask them if you can have a go.
3 Competitive wheelchair dancers use a specialist chair that has a slight camber, so the wheels slope in. But don’t think that you can’t go to wheelchair dance because you haven’t got a special sporty chair – you can do it in any chair.
4 Get to know your wheelchair. Play with it. Can you travel forwards slowly? Quickly? Are you confident doing one big push and then letting go of the wheels? For some people that’s scary – like riding a bike without stabilisers – but once you learn to let go, it helps.
5 If you’re interested in giving it a go as a wheelchair user or an able-bodied partner, visit the Wheelchair Dance Sport Association website.
(Source: Daniel Masoliver, TheGuardian Online).