Wheelchair dancing provides life lessons to Kansas City group

Monday, October 26, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT
Instructor Chris Pruitt gives ballroom dancing lessons Oct. 15 to Lorraine Cannistra, a resident of Lawrence, Kan. Cannistra is a member of Groovability, a Kansas City wheelchair ballroom dance troupe that will host a Dance-a-Thon to raise money this weekend.

KANSAS CITY — The dance music blares through the halls of an office building in Westport, a neighborhood in Kansas City. Sometimes it's a waltz. Sometimes it's a samba. Sometimes it's hip-hop.

Bella Studio of Performing Arts is a one-room dance studio with a wood floor. Mirrors line one wall and Warhol-esque paintings are hung on the others. Peek through the cracked door, and observers are likely to see something they might not expect.

Instructor Chris Pruitt, a thin man with hair in a ponytail, glides across the floor pushing, pulling and dipping a woman in a wheelchair. There is complex choreography, the kind dancers perfect over months.

This is Groovability, a small Kansas City wheelchair ballroom dance troupe that hopes to change the world.

"We're good dancers," says Lorraine Cannistra, a Lawrence, Kan., resident. "We're not just good dancers who happen to use wheelchairs."

Groovability was founded two years ago. Ottawa, Kan., resident JoAnne Fluke had seen demonstrations of wheelchair ballroom dancing and called Pruitt, a dance instructor, to see if he would teach her.

Pruitt did not have experience with people in wheelchairs, and he had nevertaught them to dance.

"I told her I would do it, but that I don't teach anybody any different, whether you're using a wheelchair or not," he says.

To learn for his new teaching role, he spent three days in a wheelchair, doing everything from using the restroom to taking a shower. That, along with his other experiences with the Groovability dancers, has altered his perspective on life.

"It's taught me more about dancing and life than I've taught them," Pruitt says. "It's made me think more about the fundamentals — both about dancing and in life."

Pruitt is the male lead with most of the dancers. He helps push and pull them around the room as their balance, arm movements and chair control guide the way.

"The amazing thing is, if you're teaching this — and Chris will tell you this, too, — it's almost like teaching it to anybody else," Fluke said. "The main thing you have to watch for, as a lead, is you don't get run over."

Pruitt admits he's had some sore toes over the past couple of years. But it's well-worth what he's received.

"I don't think you truly understand some of the life lessons you learn about people with difficulties and life challenges until you're working with Lorraine, JoAnne and the other girls and guys," he says.

Cannistra is learning life lessons of her own.

The 41-year-old has adapted to cerebral palsy her entire life. She was Miss Wheelchair Kansas 2007, but she didn't find her true inspiration until the pageant ceremony the following year.

That's when she saw a demonstration of wheelchair ballroom dancing.

"I watched the ballroom dancing exhibition, and I cried," she says. "It was so graceful, and I'm not used to using that word with wheelchair users."

It took her awhile before Fluke convinced Cannistra to try ballroom dancing herself.

"It was something I never thought I could do," Cannistra says. "It's still a challenge."

Her upper body strength doesn't allow her the same mobility of other wheelchair dancers. And her cerebral palsy sometimes makes her muscles spasm when she's under stress — like when she's frustrated learning a routine, or when she's performing in a competition.

Still, Cannistra said wheelchair ballroom dancing has changed her life. Not only has it helped her better control her wheelchair, it has helped her self-confidence. She gives presentations about empowering people with disabilities, and the dancing has given her new material to talk about.

"It has expanded my mind for what is possible for me to do," she says. "Three years ago, the idea of trying wheelchair ballroom dancing would not have been possible. This has made me look at what I can do in a new light."

Fluke says there are similar groups on the coasts but not many in the Midwest. Her group only has about a half-dozen members, but they're actively recruiting new dancers. They're staging a Dance-a-Thon next weekend to raise money for the group and show off their talents. They'd like to start a Groovability chapter in Lawrence, if they could find the studio and instructor.

Fluke would like to see ballroom dancing included in the Paralympics.

"It's a sport," she says.

She thinks that distinction would help teach those who use wheelchairs that dancing could help their daily lives.

"I've been in a wheelchair all my life," she says. "They really don't teach you the best way to push a wheelchair. They say, 'If a person can maneuver a wheelchair from point A to point B, that's good.' But we've realized with dancing, when you touch that wheel, it's part of an art."

And some of the habits she has fallen into, such as taking half-pushes instead of longer, full pushes, aren't the most efficient ways to move.

Cannistra appreciates those practical lessons. But for her, the bigger lessons are about self-confidence.

"I'm not sure I can adequately express it," she says. "It's a life-changing thing. It has completely altered my perspective about what I can do."

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