Wheelchair dancers aim for gold

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Wheelchair dancers aim for gold


Members of a wheelchair dance team from Ulsan pose for the camera on Oct. 11 during a practice for the upcoming 2017 World Para Dance Sport Championships. From the left are dancers Lee Young-ho, Park Young-sun, Lee Ik-hee and Jang Hye-jeong. [CHOI EUN-KYUNG]

ULSAN - As they have done countless times before, the four members of Ulju County’s wheelchair dance team gracefully waltzed across a dance floor at the Ulsan Sports Complex last Wednesday afternoon.

This team from Ulsan is composed of two duos. Each duo has one partner in a wheelchair and the other dancing upright. Wheelchair users Jang Hye-jeong and Lee Young-ho and their partners Park Young-sun and Lee Ik-hee are shooting for first prize in the upcoming 2017 World Para Dance Sport Championships in Belgium. They practice eight hours a day.

The team from Ulju County is Korea’s only professional wheelchair dance team. “Wheelchair dancing is not popular in Korea,” Seo Sang-cheol, the team’s director, explained. “Ulju County created our team in February 2014 to begin supporting talented athletes in a systematic way.”

Jang Hye-jeong lost her mobility in a childhood accident. She worked as a disability rights consultant before taking to wheelchair dancing full-time in 2011.

“Wheelchair dancing made me come face-to-face with my disability for the first time,” she said. “Previously my disability didn’t present such an obstacle to me, even during school days, marriage and childbirth.”

During performances, Jang was initially bothered by what she perceived as people’s fixation on her disability rather than her dancing skills. Then she saw a quadriplegic dancer in an electronic wheelchair at an international festival.

“It was beautiful to see the audience overcome with awe as they watched the dancer move,” Jang recounted. After that, she started paying more attention to her own facial expressions and hand gestures while performing.

Though the intensity of practicing sometimes makes her feel like crying, Jang says that dancing frees her in a way that allows her to forget she is disabled.

Lee Young-ho, who won gold at the 2014 Incheon Asian Para Games, was paralyzed from the waist down by an accident fourteen years ago. Before the accident, he was a professional boxer.

Through his rehabilitation hospital director, Lee met Kim Yong-woo, one of the first Korean wheelchair dancers.

“It was a pleasurable shock,” Lee said, recalling an encounter that inspired him to pursue a dancing career. “Wheelchair dancing is strangely magnetic. Although I feel pressured to live up to my past achievements, dancing is still an enjoyment.”

Wheelchair dance duos can be composed of two wheelchair users or only one. The dancers need to cooperate with what they call the “third partner,” the wheelchair. Wheelchairs designed specifically for dancing are tight-fitting and have bands that fix the dancers’ legs in place.

“The shape of the chair and the placing of the bands are designed with consideration of the disabilities of individual dancers,” Jang explained. “They are similar to custom-made dance shoes.”

The team from Ulju County usually competes in two or three international and ten national competitions each year. It won top prizes in the 2014 IPC Wheelchair Dance Sport Asian Pacific Cup, 2014 Asian Para Games, 2015 IPC Wheelchair Dance Sport New Taipei City Cup Open, 2017 Wheelchair Dance Sport Continents Cup and 2017 National Para Games in Korea.

“Though I am not financially stable and my future is uncertain, it’s really meaningful for me to go abroad and represent Korea,” Jang said. After retirement, Jang and Lee hope to consult on policies for disabled athletes.

BY CHOI EUN-KYUNG [kim.eunjin1@joongang.co.kr]
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