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American DanceWheels Troupe Performs at Papal Festival
By: Jeff Meade
Nov 13 2015

Draped in a glittering blue gown, Alysse Einbender glided across the Eakins Oval stage overlooking the Benjamin Franklin Parkway this past September, performing with a precision troupe of dancers that had been accorded a singular honor—leading off the Festival of Families welcoming Pope Francis to Philadelphia.

Einbender, a former patient at MossRehab and current advisory board member, faced a spinal stroke in 2004 and is paralyzed from the waist down. In May, she moved from her wheelchair to a specially adapted surfboard, coasting through the waves off Wildwood, N.J. as part of the program They Will Surf Again. At the Festival of Families, she was showing off yet another talent as a member of the American DanceWheels Foundation (ADF) formation team. 

American DanceWheels Foundation adapts traditional Ballroom and Latin dance steps, leads, and holds for both standing and wheelchair-seated dancers.

Einbender learned about ADF about five years ago when she attended a Rec Fest sponsored by the Global Abilities Foundation. Rec Fest is a showcase for people to learn about and try the various sports and recreational activities that have been adapted for people with disabilities. MossRehab is a long-time participant in Rec Fest and has worked collaboratively with ADF for almost 10 years. 

Out of the House

A couple of years ago, when she was looking for something that would get her out of the house and offer social opportunities, she remembered ADF and registered for the next series of classes that were being held in the cafeteria at MossRehab’s Elkins Park campus.

“At first it seemed like a bunch of isolated steps, until I went home and researched wheelchair ballroom dancing,” Einbender says. “The partnership of a seated and standing dancer is really something to behold, and I wanted in. 

ADF instructors have started offering online training for teachers and students at dance studios and rehabilitation settings across the U.S. and abroad, says Einbender. This makes it possible for people who cannot travel to a dance studio for lessons—either because of their mobility challenges or geographical location—to learn something new and fun, be socially engaged, and benefit physically from the exercise.

Once in, Einbender was “in” in a big way, leading to some memorable performances. This past summer, the troupe performed during the closing ceremonies of the Pan American Games in Toronto.

Little did they know that the most prestigious engagement was yet to come.

Leading off the Festival

Organizers of the Festival of Families saw footage of the troupe’s appearance in Toronto, Einbender says, and contacted ADF Executive Director Melinda Kremer, asking the dancers to lead off the festival.

Setting aside the understandable jitters, the group performed a tango choreographed (and danced) by Artistic Director Aubree Marchione. Other members of the troupe performing on the main stage included Vlada Martinek (Philadelphia); Diane Murphy (Erdenheim, Pa.), Mike Nichols (Hockessin, Del.), and Nick Scott (Ottawa, Kan.). 

Probably anyone would be blown away by such a high-profile performance. Einbender is no exception. 

“I thought Toronto was the biggest audience I’d ever perform for—until we were asked to dance at last week’s celebration,” she says. “In a span of just eight months I have performed for audiences ranging from one hundred people at a fund-raising event in February, to over 50,000 at the closing ceremonies of the Pan American games (not including those watching television), to hundreds of thousands watching in person on the Parkway and on television. I never in my life dreamt that I’d be doing anything like this—ever!  It has been one of the most challenging things I have done to date, and has been life-changing. I mustered courage I didn’t know I had and have gained confidence and poise in the process.”

“I felt both humbled and immensely proud to showcase an art form that reaches across social and physical barriers to engage people with and without disabilities,” Einbender says. “It is honestly the most fun I ever had in a wheelchair!”

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