Rolling her way to victory

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Rolling her way to victory

With steamy tango rhythms filling the large dance floor, two dancers moved across it, twisting and and spinning passionately. They were two persons, but they are making dance moves as if they were one. What was more amazing was the female dancer. Ribbons were neatly tied on her pink dance shoes, which never touched the floor.
That’s because she was in a wheelchair. The “steps” were made by moving the wheels with her hands. She’s Oh Yeon-seok, 46, the only wheelchair dancer in Korea.
Ms. Oh stretched out her arm, and the male dancer glided toward her. Their hands seem to meet, but suddenly the wheelchair’s left wheel rose in the air. Then it swiveled. The spectators oohed and aahed. Ms. Oh’s “standing” partner is Lee Gyeong-hwa, 40, an employee of Hynix Semiconductor. With over 10 years of experience in dancing, he goes by the nickname “Dance Lee” given to him by his co-workers. “There are sports played by people with disabilities in wheelchairs such as basketball, table tennis and badminton, but wheelchair dance is the only sport that can be played by a disabled person and a normal person together,” Mr. Lee said.
Mr. Lee and Ms. Oh plan to compete next month at the 2006 IPC Wheelchair Dance Sport World Championships, the biggest and best-known wheelchair dance competition. Athletes from Poland ― which has a lot of wheelchair dancers ― and from other Eastern European countries are going to participate in the event.
Ms. Oh learned about her disability during her middle school entrance ceremony. “There were calls to turn left and turn right, but I was standing like a pole. I could not lift my toes,” she said.
When she turned 20, she learned the name of her disease: progressive peripheral nerve paralysis. She has what is considered a “first-rate disability.” She was gradually losing feelings in her legs and her hands and arms are weakening. Then she started exercising.
“I tried to learn wheelchair shooting, but I gave up. My hands were weak and trembling. I could only use my arms while swimming,” Ms. Oh said.
Then she came across wheelchair dance. “It takes one-and-a half-minutes to finish a single dance routine. When I do Latin dances such as the cha cha or rumba, I sweat all over. It feels like going over the Himalayas in a wheelchair,” she said.
Her family was worried about the hobby in the beginning. After studying wheelchair dance for one year, she danced on stage as part of the opening ceremony of a dance sports competition. Watching Ms. Oh’s performance, her elder sister, who disagreed with her about starting wheelchair dance, broke into tears. It was also the first time Mr. Lee, who was the chief judge of the event, saw her dance.
“When a person in a wheelchair came on stage, I was very curious,” Mr. Lee said. Then his jaw dropped in astonishment. “I’d never seen dancing that was so touching.”
Most of all, her advanced skills in such moves as wheelie turn, which requires tipping the wheelchair backward, were amazing.
Soon Mr. Lee took up wheelchair dancing as her partner. “In the beginning, a part of my intention was to help. But I realized that it was completely different,” Mr. Lee said.
Even with one dancer in a wheelchair, the two found that at least while out on the floor, the line between normal and disabled vanished.
Since February, they have been winning top prizes at many different competitions in Korea. In April, they won grand prizes at two sports contests for the disabled. Mr. Lee’s wife became a strong supporter of her husband, though she was unhappy about the idea in the beginning.
There is no elevator to the dance hall on the third floor. Ms. Oh needs help going up the stairs.
“If there are more victories, the stairs will change too,” she said.

by Baik Sung-ho
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