In front of her are eight pairs of dancers moving rhythmically to the dramatic music, each couple consisting of one partner in a wheelchair and one on two legs. Martina leads a special workshop that connects people with and without physical disabilities to help individuals overcome their fears and reservations. Among other things, non-disabled participants learn that people with disabilities are not poor individuals that need to be pitied. The participants with disabilities, in turn, learn that life in a wheelchair can still present them with new opportunities, experiences, and inspiration.
Martina Henrichová invented the dance workshop for wheelchair users like herself. Since her early childhood, Martina was an avid dancer, until one day she was seriously hurt by the thing that she loved most. During a practice session in 2013, she experienced a back injury which left her paralyzed. Instead of abandoning her passion, however, she founded a dance department under the roof of Prague’s Wheelchair Sports Club. Now, she offers her seminars in Pilsen and Prague, and even makes public performances with her dancing group now and again.
“I design choreography routines for both groups in an effort to connect dancers with and without disabilities. In addition to solo and group performances, there are also partner dances and light acrobatics. In short, I like to introduce new opportunities through the wheelchair.” Martina continuously expands her repertoire by including elements from different dance styles such as Modern, Jazz, and Street Dance. “I’m inspired by famous dancers and dancing troupes – just like any other choreographer. Most of it comes from my own imagination, and I also draw on the time when I wasn’t sitting in a wheelchair,” she adds.
Guided by Trust
“The most important thing is that I don’t forget to brake the wheelchair right after turning, otherwise I’ll fall backwards as soon as you lean on me,” laughs 40-year old Pavel Foltýn. It’s his first time at the workshop, and in the beginning, he’s still a little uncertain. I feel the same way, since it’s always a bit hard to get used to touching a person you’ve just met. Fortunately, only a few moments later, we have become so captivated by the dance that our shyness evaporates and we can simply marvel as our movements improve with every repetition. Although we also spend a bit of time dancing alone, the better part of the choreography consists of pirouettes and couple’s figures that require Pavel to skillfully maneuver his wheelchair – and for me to really trust him. Dancing with a wheelchair user is a unique type of symbiosis that can only work when both partners really know that they can trust each other.
Although Pavel just started wheelchair dancing, sports have played an influential role in his life for some time. Last year, he began his studies at the Prague Faculty for Physical Education and Sports. Most notably, he is one of the Czech Republic’s best Handcyclers – a racer who powers a special three-wheeled cycling vehicle with their hands. Pavel has been in a wheelchair since the age of 23, when he injured himself while jumping into water. Luckily, rather than discouraging him, this fate propelled Pavel to work hard on his mind and body to become a top athlete. Nevertheless, he is awed by the gracefulness and flexibility of Martina and the other more experienced dancers. “For me personally, dancing is the discovery of an entirely new dimension of movement. And it is also a beautiful example of everything that is possible with a wheelchair. I know that it’s quite a lot of work, but so often it is only our minds that are limiting us.”
A Breathtaking Connection
Many people with disabilities dislike it when they are treated too cautiously by their environment. That is why Martina challenges her participants during her workshop. Of course, everyone dances according to his or her own physical capabilities. However, the choreography also entails more complicated dance sequences set to a spirited tempo. After a 2-hour open seminar, the dance ensemble that is practicing for an upcoming public performance continues to train. The dancers stage a touching routine harmonically combining precision and ease. Together, individual dancers complement each other to form what resembles one single, powerful body. Meanwhile, us bystanders shake our heads in disbelief as we observe the wheelchairs’ astounding grace.
Another one of the key choreographers is Anna Krátká, who took up ballet at the age of five. At 17, she injured her spinal cord in a traffic accident. Just like Martina and Pavel, she had to fight diligently to regain some movement. “About a year after the accident I started to miss dancing more and more. The doctors instructed me to just design choreographies in my head, but it wasn’t the same,” Anna remembers. Luckily, it was not long before she met Martina, who had just founded the dance department. Anna became a member right away, and the women have closely collaborated ever since. “I am very thankful that she reintroduced me to dancing,” Anna adds.
Full Speed Ahead
Although Anna believes that anyone with an interest can start wheelchair dancing, she emphasizes that, “All of our hand movements must be even more distinct and fierce. Much like our facial expressions, our hands replace the movement of our legs and help reinforce the message of our figures.” And of course, it is also vital that both the seated and standing dancers learn to skillfully handle the wheelchair, knowing when to brake, when to turn, and how fast to accelerate the device.
So far, wheelchair dancing has not yet enjoyed widespread popularity in the Czech Republic. Most men prefer group sports and show less interest in dancing. Women, meanwhile, remain a minority among wheelchair users. “Additionally, the concentration of wheelchair users isn’t that high in individual cities, and as a result participants must traverse long distances to reach Prague or Pilsen,” Martina explains. Still, she is happy that her newly founded dance department has received so much support, continually attracting new members to study the choreographies and receiving offers for public performances. “And that’s why I want to keep up the speed,” she smiles.
Defining diversity as an asset is one of the Europe's main strengths. An inclusive society enables as many people as possible to benefit from this pluralism.