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By Neil Peterson | August 15, 2009

‘To dance is to be out of yourself. Larger, more beautiful, more powerful.’
- Agnes de Mille

From the Busby Berkeley musical extravaganzas of 1930′s cinema, to today’s current love affair with televised dance competitions, partner dances have always inspired passion and awe in the hearts of a worldwide audience. For most of us, our initial image of the rumba, the cha cha, or the foxtrot, is of two partners gliding across the floor, feet moving in tandem. But a new BBC show, set to air in January 2010, will feature a select series of dancers, and promises to challenge all previously-held assumptions about what outstanding ballroom dance can look like. Pairing celebrities with wheelchair-bound partners – it will be the first show to feature a sport that is growing in popularity around the world. To paraphrase cyclist Lance Armstrong, these dancers are proving ‘It’s not about the chair.’

Wheelchair dance, also known as integrated dance, was first developed in the late 1960′s at a rehabilitation center in Scotland. As patients learned to maneuver with their new chairs, it became apparent that the moves could also be applied to dance techniques as well – returning a sense of control and movement that many felt had been irrecoverable when they lost the use of their legs.

Now practiced by over 5,000 dancers in 40 countries, wheelchair dance covers styles in range from up-tempo Latin-American (including paso doble, jive, and the aforementioned rumba) to the elegant, slower Standard dances, like the waltz and the tango. For those disabled dancers who – by accident or illness – have been confined to a wheelchair, the opportunity to dance can be both physically and mentally beneficial – improving cardiovascular fitness and coordination, while reconnecting with an innate physical creativity.

Now a competition-level sport, partnerships are either composed of an able-bodied dancer with a wheelchair-bound dancer, a pairing referred to as ‘combi-style dancing’, or a ‘duo dance’ with both partners in wheelchairs. For able-bodied dancers, it is not only an opportunity to explore new choreography, but also a chance to better understand the challenges faced by those with life-changing disabilities. Combining extraordinary physicality and style, it is impossible to deny the athleticism shown by these dancers. And as a dancer myself, it is an experience both moving and humbling.

For proponents of wheelchair dancing, this BBC show is a remarkable tribute to the dedication of thousands of dancers. Having aired a previous documentary on the subject in April 2007, the BBC believes this new competition will continue to grow public awareness for the sport and further their commitment to ‘covering disability in a mainstream way.’