This Bloomfield Twp. studio puts wheelchair users on the dance floor

Karen Bouffard
The Detroit News

The first few times Cheryl Angelelli tried wheelchair ballroom dancing, she wasn't over the moon about it, but it didn't take long for the sport to become her life's passion.

Angelelli was introduced to the sport in 2014 after seeing a Facebook post by Evan Mountain, co-owner of the Fred Astaire Dance Studio in Bloomfield Township, saying they had a dance instructor trained in wheelchair ballroom dancing and were looking for students to teach.

"Wheelchair dance was something I had always wanted to try," Angelelli said. "The first few times we weren't really doing much, just moving back and forth, but I wanted to continue.

"And then my third or fourth lesson we started to do (a choreographed dance) and it was the first time I felt like I was really dancing and gliding across the dance floor. 

"That was the moment I got totally hooked."

Angelelli was so smitten with the sport that she partnered with Mountain to build one of the country's largest wheelchair dance programs in the country at the studio.

Using skills from her day job as a marketing professional with the Detroit Medical Center's Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan, they successfully applied for funding from the institute's charitable arm, the RIM Foundation, to start a program. 

Now the studio's Dance Mobility program offers free once-a-month wheelchair dance classes. They held a special session on Saturday with Genice Marquez, the head coach for the Philippine Para Dancesport team, the world champions in the sport.

They also have lessons for amputees who want to learn how to dance with their prosthetics, and sessions to help couples prepare dance routines for their weddings. They're also working with stroke survivors and children. 

"Angelelli started working with me on wheelchair dancing, and the more we talked, I said 'How can we take this to the next level, what can we do to help more people,'" Mountain recalled. "And she said let's see if the RIM Foundation, the Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan Foundation, could fund it — so that's when we started the Dance Mobility program."

The two have also begun to develop dancers for competitive wheelchair ballroom dancing, Mountain added.

"There isn't really wheelchair competitions here in America yet, but there are in Europe," Mountain explained. "But over in Europe there are, and over in Asia.

"So Cheryl's gone to a competition with one of my instructors, and another person went with one of my instructors to the World Championships in Germany two years ago, before COVID."

For Angelelli, Mobility Dance provides an outlet for her competitive spirit. She was a competitive swimmer before becoming a quadriapalegic as the result of an accident during a swim practice at the age of 14.

Student Ann Manning, right, of Waterford Township, stretches with other students, Saturday, Jan. 15, 2022. She was hit be a drunken driver 42-years-ago, fracturing her spine.

After the accident, she became a competitive swimmer with the U.S. Paralympic team. Over the course of a 16-year Paralympic career, Angelelli competed in three Paralympic games, winning two bronze medals at the 2004 games in Athens and two silver medals in Beijing in 2008. 

Angelelli had recently retired from competitive swimming and said she was looking for a another competitive outlet when she saw Mountain's Facebook post in 2014. But other people may be more interested in the sport's opportunities for creative expression, social interaction or just to have fun.

Angelelli and Mountain have worked to bring wheelchair dance programs to Chicago, Arizona and Maryland, and will soon be going to Texas to help start a program in that state, she said. 

"My goal now is to try to bring Dance Mobility to other people," she said.

"Not just here in Michigan but to let people everywhere be able to walk into a dance studio and be able to dance — whether they walk in on two feet or roll in on two wheels."

Twitter: @kbouffardDN