In the small Portuguese bay-side town of Seixal (population 184,269) exists Wheeldance, a group of 28 dancers sharing artistic expression, forming deep bonds of friendship, educating the community, and overcoming the challenges of life with disability.
Almost half of this group are living with Cerebral Palsy (CP), another motor disability, and/or an intellectual disability. The other half are the parents, siblings and friends of people living with disability.
In 2012, APCAS (the Cerebral Palsy Association of Almada Seixal) were looking for a way to bring parents and their children together in an informal setting – outside of the humdrum of everyday life – where they could share magical moments, make new friends and strengthen the bonds of family.
The result was Wheeldance; an activity that is open to everyone, promotes movement and encourages artistic expression in the community, away from the stifling institutional context.
APCAS representative, Ana Barradas says nothing like Wheeldance was previously available in the region.
“Wheeldance is open to the whole community, it’s free, inclusive, and essential for promoting the quality of life of people with disabilities, their families and the community,” she says.
The initiative has strong and simple objectives:
1. Promote the practice of regular physical activity, body and musical expression, and socialisation
2. Promote family involvement.
Thankfully, Wheeldance is a fully funded initiative which means that it is completely free for people to get involved.
Currently, the Portuguese Institute of Sport and Youth co-fund Wheeldance alongside Seixal City Council and QuartzQuality.
The inaugural Wheeldance Performance
The first Wheeldance performance came without anyone expecting it.
“When the group started, the goal was about creating a private moment for dance, movement and sharing without any of the pressures of performance,” says Ana.
Before long however, the first invitation for Wheeldance to perform publicly had arrived.
The Municipality of Seixal – who provide the school pavilion where the group train – had invited Wheeldance to perform at the 2013 Mundial Dance Day celebrations in Seixal.
“The group accepted this challenge with open arms,” says Ana.
“It was undoubtedly a great moment in the lives of Wheeldance participants, and in the lives of those who saw them perform for the first time.
“It was the moment when we decided we had to act more often; it was a moment of many emotions!” she says.
What is involved with a Wheeldance performance?
The group train for an hour and a half every week.
Ana says this allows participants to promote their global and artistic development as well as prepare and organise performances.
“Sometimes, in exceptional circumstances, the group will do more than one workout per week, so participants feel more confident about a performance,” she says.
Wheeldance is led by Monica Silva, a sports teacher with an inclusive dance background.
It’s Monica who – taking into account the creativity and desires of the participants – taps into every corner of her imagination to choreograph the magical Wheeldance performances.
“Above all, a lot of love, fun and friendship goes into the production of a Wheeldance performance,” says Ana.
Throughout training sessions, the group will debate which clothes to use, and what materials they’ll need for their performances (such as balls, bows, scarves, etc…).
And crucially, before a performance, the group makes sure the event organisers are clear on what accessibility needs are required in the space allocated to Wheeldance.
What about the Wheeldancers themselves?
Rita Patricio is a 22-year old member of Wheeldance living with CP (spastic diplegia). She’s been involved with the group since inception.
“I got involved because I love music, I like to dance, and I was curious to know how we can adapt the choreography to people with varied functionality,” says Rita.
“For me, music has always been one of the most beautiful and effective forms of artistic expression.
“There is nothing more gratifying than being able to tell others through artistic expression, that everyone can do everything regardless of their functionality,” Rita says.
“Appearances can be very misleading and people are often much more than they appear to be.
“Being part of the Wheeldance group contributes to my physical well-being and helps me to relax,” Rita says.
According to Rita, Wheeldance works as a fun escape from the daily routine.
“It stimulates your individual mobility but because we work as a whole, the climate of mutual help and motivation work as a support for overcoming everything,” she says.
Fifty-year old Elia Ramires is the mother of a girl with CP.
Elia – who has been involved with Parent group APCAS since its beginning – joined Wheeldance after accompanying her dance-loving daughter to a session.
“Watching the interaction between everyone involved in the project, seeing the commitment, affection and friendship is truly inspiring,” says Elia.
“Having the opportunity to experience this really is a privilege. It makes us richer in love, pride, kindness and respect for others.”
What impact is Wheeldance having on the broader community?
Elia analyses the reactions of the audience each time the group performs and says the impact is clearly huge.
“First of all, they’re people in this group. People with and without disabilities, dancing with passion and soul,” Elia says.
“The audience sees a group of people dancing, where everyone participates equally in the performance – it’s why so many people who watch have such varied emotions.
“We are all the same, without limits, without fears,” she says.
Ana Barradas says the performances promote awareness of issues such as inclusions and equal opportunity to the community.
“For the participants, it comes as an eye-opener that the community values their abilities. It promotes their self-confidence and self-esteem when they realise that they have as much to teach the community as they do to receive from the community.”