If you are a dancer, you already know how much fun it is, but sometimes dancing can put a lot of stress on your body. Being an able-bodied dancer can be difficult enough, but imagine being a person who has physical limitations or disabilities. For many people, the loss of a limb or losing your sight or hearing might mean that they can never dance as well as others, if at all. However, there are dancers all over the world with disabilities who are highly successful in their field. Many have been dancing for a very long time and some have just begun. Either way, these dancers are highly determined individuals that find creative ways to make dancing accessible for themselves and others like them. I’m going to present short biographies of five amazing people who have pushed through their circumstances in order to dance. Their stories show us that if someone’s passion for dance is great enough, almost nothing can stop them from pursuing their dreams. These stories also show us that dancing can be for any person, no matter what their status or situation may be!
When a massive earthquake hit Haiti in 2010, millions of lives were gravely affected, including that of George Exantus. George was a Latin/ballroom dancer before the incident, but when the earthquake caused his home to collapse, he was trapped under the rubble for three days. He was eventually rescued, but part of his leg had to be amputated. In spite of this, he never stopped dreaming of getting back on the dance floor. George has stated that, “the will to dance is what kept his spirits up.” With the help of doctors, he was able to receive a prosthetic leg which enabled him to walk, and he was even able to get back to dancing only eight months after going through operations. Now he is back to doing his favorite styles, including Salsa! He also performs all over the world, showing people how nothing can stop his love of dance. George’s story is not only one of physical perseverance, but emotional, as well. It is pretty amazing how he finds his happiness through dancing, even after a great disaster.
Kitty Lunn was a principal dancer with The Washington Ballet and was just getting started on Broadway when she had an accident that changed her career forever. One evening, she slipped on a patch of ice and fell down a flight of stairs which ended up breaking her back, damaging her spinal cord, and rendering her paraplegic. Her doctors told her she would never be able to walk again, so at that moment she also thought she’d never dance again. Lunn tried to stop thinking of dancing, but she couldn’t. Eventually she became inspired enough to start taking classes again, even in a wheelchair. In an interview, she recalled how the famous dancer, Agnes de Mille, came to her ballet company when she was young and told her, “You have to learn to dance in the body you have.” These words reminded her that if she wanted to dance, she had to accept her body, even with limited mobility. She now continues to take lessons, teach other dancers with disabilities, and has even started her own dance company, Infinity Dance Studio. Her company is for disabled dancers like herself who won’t let their disabilities keep them from doing what they love. Kitty Lunn states, “The dancer inside you doesn’t care about your cancer, loneliness, or your inability to use your legs; the dancer inside you just wants to keep dancing.” Kitty’s story also showcases the importance of accessibility in the dance world. She created a space for dancers with disabilities because she knew there were other dancers like her. It’s important to be aware of the fact that not all dancers can stand on two feet; but that doesn’t make them any less of a dancer.
Much like George Exantus, Jean Sok does not let the fact that he is an amputee keep him from dancing. However, he has a bit a different approach to dancing. He doesn’t use a prosthetic leg, but instead dances with his crutches and sometimes without them by balancing on one leg. Jean lost his left leg at age 15 and started dancing soon after. While he prefers not to talk about how he lost his leg, he has admitted that he went through periods where people discouraged him and he lacked inspiration, but ultimately he never doubted that he could be a dancer. In an interview, he states that “anytime he wants to find a job, he auditions as a normal person because he doesn’t feel like he has any limitations.” Watching him dance is like watching him live up to his words. As an acrobatic hip-hop and break dancer, his movements are flawless! Jean is currently a professional dancer who has performed at the Billboard Music Awards, on So You Think You Can Dance, and in Cirque du Soleil’s show, Michael Jackson: The Immortal Tour. What’s notable in Jean’s story is his statement about “not having any limitations.” This is an important point because it reminds us that people with disabilities are able to have the same opportunities and perform at an equal level as other professional dancers. As the classic saying goes; “you can’t judge a book by its cover!”
Shaheem Sanchez is another hip hop dancer who refuses to let his circumstances stop him from dancing. He has been deaf since the age of 4 and started dancing at age 11. His late father was also a dancer, so he wanted to follow in his footsteps. With his specialty being hip-hop, he dances by feeling the vibrations of the music and allows his body to respond through movement. He is not the first deaf dancer to use this technique. There are many other hearing-impaired dancers like Shaheem all over the world who use the music’s vibrations to dance. He admits there are some challenges that come with dancing to vibrations, such as outside noises that might distract him, but he is always determined to overcome his struggles. Shaheem, who is 26 years old, currently showcases his moves on his personal YouTube channel for all to see! His story is one that breaks down a common assumption many people have– that you need to be able to hear music to dance. Shaheem instead makes the most of his other senses. He shows that what really matters is a strong will and enthusiasm for dance.
Benjamin Yonattan started taking ballet classes when he was 5 years-old after his parents saw how active he was. However, after a visit from the eye doctor in 2013, Benjamin found out that he had Retinal Dystrophy, which meant he would lose his sight. As of now, he has lost all of his side-vision. He describes his vision like “looking through a tiny straw”. At first, it was difficult for him to keep dancing because he was having trouble with balance, leaps, and turns. Eventually his coach was able to help him learn to feel his body instead of relying on his sight. Now 15 years-old, he has danced with Young People’s Ballet Theater, the Ohio Conservatory of Ballet, and the Grand Rapids Ballet Junior Company. In addition to this impressive line of work, he was also a quarterfinalist on season 10 of America’s Got Talent. His special reminder to others is, “do not let anyone tell you that you’re different or that you can’t do what you want to do. You can. Follow your dreams, no matter what.”
Happy dancing! ^_^