Wheelchair ballroom dancing teaches empathy

Hayward, Calif. (KTVU) - Swaying to a Latin dance beat, students at Cal State East Bay, are learning the joy of moving to music in a different way, through a class that teaches wheelchair ballroom dancing.

The students' teacher Eric Kupers hopes the dancers will learn that what some people call a disability, is really just a different ability.

"For me dance is about expressing being human, and so every human being has an interesting story to tell in their body and has an interesting way to move," said Eric Kupers, Cal State East Bay Dance Instructor

Over eight weeks, the students, who are all able-bodied, were divided into pairs with one person seated in a wheelchair. In partnership with the American Dance Wheels Foundation, the students took lessons from guest artist Derek Williams, who uses his wheelchair to help students understand that there are no limits to dance.

"When we just get focused on a certain ways of moving and certain kinds of bodies it excludes people but it also to me, makes the field of dance boring. And it's so much more exciting to see lots of different kinds of people moving in lots of different kinds of ways," said Kupers.

For students, it was a new mind-body experience. Many said it has changed the way they view all dancing.

"It gave me another point of view to how to use different movement," said Karyn Pandong, a CSU East Bay senior from Fremont who has struggled with an arm injury that restricted her movement.

"Absolutely 100% changed the way I think because often those people are asked to adapt to a mainstream class and choreography," said Karin Adams, a CSU East Bay fourth-year student, "We were asked to adapt to each other and make compromises and make it safe for everybody and overall coming into it equally."

"It's definitely taught me not only to be happy with yourself but to also love your body," said Kyra Birks, a Cal State East Bay third-year student from Milpitas.

That love of self, in whatever form you take, and an acceptance of other people is part of the larger lesson Kupers hopes the students will carry with them beyond this one dance class. 

"It made me feel like everyone can dance, even if it's not in the same exact way," said Stephanie Gomez, a CSU East Bay fourth year dance major.

The experience is also a reminder, that everyone has obstacles to overcome.

"It's hard for me to express my emotions just by talking it out. It's a lot easier for me to express it through the way that I know best and that is dance," said Taylor Gee, a CSU East Bay senior who says dance has kept him going through difficult times.

"I can take away with that in life as well. It's just like, it's not going to be how you want it. It's not going to be laid out for you. It's just like what you make of it," said Roberto Brandt, a CSU East Bay third-year student.

The teacher says he hopes to get funding to continue offering the class next year in partnership with the American Dance Wheels Foundation, so more students can have this unique experience.