Let the rhythm move you

Wheelchair-bound Israelis are rediscovering the joy of dancing.

December 29, 2005 09:17
rhythm feature 88 298

rhythm feature 88 298. (photo credit: Meredith Price)

Thirteen years ago, while on reserve duty in the army, Adam Greenfield fell from a guard tower. The first thoughts to go through his mind after he hit the ground were about dancing, the passion he had discovered just a few weeks before. "I was conscious after I fell and I wondered immediately, will I still be able to dance?" he says. The journey from that fateful day has been long and arduous, but he has slowly returned to the dance floor with more energy than ever before. Now, he can waltz, tango, cha cha, samba, rhumba, jive, foxtrot, quickstep, folkdance and bust a move freestyle - all without using his legs. As a saucy Latin drum fills the large, empty gymnasium in Ramat Gan with its contagious beat, Greenfield and his partner are lost in the music, focusing fully on the sharp, synchronized movements of their outstretched arms, turned heads and locked palms. Gracefully, they create patterns in the air, form lines against the floor and spin circles into the space of a sensual tango. Greenfield, like many others, is dancing with a standing partner who moves with him and incorporates his wheelchair into the movements, even using it to stand on and bend across. "It has been like building a tower brick by brick," he says with a bright smile, "but I was not willing to give it up just because I was in a wheelchair." The time commitment he makes to his dancing means a lot of travel, a lot of physiotherapy to improve his technique and a lot of practice, all of which his family, friends and clients understand and encourage."The accident was hard on my family, but I could never do what I am doing now without their love and support," he adds. "Everyone in my life helps me do what I do, and they are happy with my success." Greenfield has moved from recreational dancing to serious competitions and paid performances. And despite what many may assume about dancing in a wheelchair, it requires a tremendous amount of strength and technique. "It seems like the chair is a restriction, but the dance itself is actually freer," says Katya Savilov, one of Greenfield's dance partners, who competes with him all over the world in international wheelchair dancing competitions. "It might look easy, but I tried once to dance in the wheelchair and I now understand how much harder it is than regular dancing," she says, wiping the perspiration from her brow. Savilov is a student at the Rubin Academy of Music and Dance in Jerusalem, teaches dance courses and has been dancing in couples' competitions around the world since she was 11 years old. In June of this year, she began dancing with Greenfield after overcoming her initial trepidation. "When I saw it for the first time I was so amazed I started to cry, but I wasn't sure I could do it and, when Adam called to ask me, I hesitated," she says. Savilov was willing to give it a try and, after just a few months dancing together, she and Greenfield placed eighth in the European Championships held this fall in Poland. In competitions, he dances in the category called "Selection 2," which is reserved for disabled dancers with lighter injuries who have more control over their movements. In "Selection 1," designated for the more seriously injured, another Israeli, Anna, recently took home third place at the competition. Critically injured in the terrorist attack in Netanya some months ago, Anna started attending the wheelchair dancing classes at the Veteran House in Afeka shortly after being paralyzed from just below the neck down. "When she first arrived in the class, she told me she had come to dance," says Yelena Feitliher, a professional dance instructor who arrived in Israel 10 years ago from the Ukraine. "Her injuries were extensive and she does not have much freedom of movement so it was extremely difficult for her, but despite all of the challenges, she won third place this fall in Poland," explains Feitliher proudly. Until a few years ago, Feitliher knew little about dancing in a wheelchair, or even that it was possible. The wheelchair dancers from the Veteran House turned to her when they needed a new teacher for their bi-weekly classes and, though she agreed to try, she had no idea at the outset if she would be able to teach them or understand their needs. "It's very different from teaching a regular dance class because you have to comprehend the techniques involved with using the chair to your advantage and moving with it," she says. "And you also have to understand what the injured person can do and how much movement they are capable of before you begin teaching them the dance." After two years of teaching both amateurs and competitive wheelchair dancers, Feitliher says she has more fun than she ever imagined teaching the classes and facing the challenges involved. "It's a lot of hard work and dedication, but we enjoy a good laugh. The atmosphere is wonderful, and everyone here has such a positive outlook that it's hard not to be infected by it." Savilov, who is also teaching conventional dance classes, says that dancing with Greenfield gave her a deeper understanding of the body that she now passes on to her students. "I have learned so much," she says. "And it's more fun to dance with Adam than with any standing partners I have ever had because we don't have any of the disagreements or problems that I always experienced before." The lack of conflict probably has more to do with Greenfield's personality and optimistic energy than with his confinement to a wheelchair, but Savilov is convinced that, when it comes to this type of dancing, she is more of a student than a teacher. This country's obligatory military service and frequent terrorist attacks elevate the number of disabled people, and many of the injured in Greenfield's Friday afternoon class share similar stories. Yet, no matter how the accidents may have occurred, all of the dancers share cheerful attitudes and a passion for life. For Eran Reznikov, a 30-year-old Israeli who speaks with a strong South African accent, dancing is just one more activity to add to his list. "It's my first time in the class, and I came because I don't have much else to do on a Friday so I thought I would try it out," he explains. Between playing basketball, water-skiing, snow-skiing, gym workouts, writing, cooking and singing, he has little time left, but he says he has always been a dancer. "Life is about perspective," he adds. "How you cope with an injury like this depends on how you look at things, and I am a positive thinker." The majority of the standing volunteer dancers in the class are women, and some of them also dance professionally, but for Michal Avieli, volunteering is purely for the fun. "When I first started to dance with someone in a wheelchair, it was very difficult. I had to learn how to look past the chair and see the person sitting in it," she explains. "Volunteering here has taught me what it means to be strong, and how to communicate better. I got to know the people here, and now I see beyond the war, the pain and the suffering to the beauty inside." Rany Gottleib, a regular member of the class, was injured 28 years ago in a military accident. "I've been dancing for almost four years now," he says. "When I got injured, I had no idea it would ever be possible to dance again, but once I found out about it, I came to try it immediately." Now, he dances four times a week, and says as long as it involves dancing, he isn't fussy about the style. Greenfield has a much more rigorous dancing schedule and physiotherapy routine than many of those who attend classes just for fun. He explains that he even has special inverted wheels on his chair and several perches where his dance partner can stand and he often practices more than 10 hours a week - which means having multiple partners is necessary. "I can't require one young woman to dance with me as much as I want," he laughs. After winning his first medal in the Netherlands three years ago, Greenfield met Tal Gal-Or, a student in law and economy. Together, they won a gold medal in Japan in classic dancing last year, a bronze medal in Russia, and took fourth place in Slovakia. They recently returned from New Jersey, where they performed for various audiences, and they are already practicing for an upcoming performance in Tel Aviv. A self-employed financial advisor, Greenfield says that he is at a point in his life when he can afford to reduce his income and spend more time dancing for his soul. "My children are grown and I am less responsible financially for the family, so I have decided to devote myself to dancing," he says. Last week, at the Protea Village home for the elderly in Bnei Dror, Greenfield performed with Gal-Or and another partner, Gal Kukui. "I dance with 'wave' and 'light,'" says Greenfield, referring to the literal translation of his dance partner's names from Hebrew. According to the cultural director at Protea Village, Ilana Krumer, the performance was one of the most moving and elegant she has ever seen. "It was amazing and beautiful and incredible and gorgeous," she says. "Every good word you can think of describes what we saw." And the performance was all anyone could talk about around the village for days. "They are doing very unusual, emotional dances, and they touched a lot of hearts here," says Krumer. After the performance, one of the viewers told Greenfield about her grandson who is in an electric wheelchair and loves music. Greenfield spoke to the boy's family the next day and told them about a competition in the Netherlands. They were so excited to hear about the opportunity that they are thinking of planning a bar mitzva trip there to look into the possibilities of dancing for a medal. Yet despite greater prospects, better facilities and higher recognition than in recent years, the wheelchair-bound dancers still have to overcome the fears that many people have of the unknown. "When I go through customs at Ben-Gurion airport with two wheelchairs and I tell them one is for dancing, they are always suspicious of me," says Greenfield. "The day the customs officers immediately let me through because they know about wheelchair dancing will be the day I fully succeed."

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