Katie Hoffman maneuvers on her crutches around several people who have gathered in a large exercise room at Turnstone.
Others in wheelchairs chitchat as people slowly come in and shed their coats.
Hoffman too sits down and takes off her coat. She eventually puts aside her crutches and climbs into a wheelchair.
She is getting ready to do something she has never been able to do – dance.
Hoffman, along with the others who have come together on this cold Tuesday evening, is taking part in an adaptive ballroom dance class, the first being offered in northeast Indiana.
Many of the students are in wheelchairs, or dealing with other physical or intellectual disabilities. But despite those challenges, the dance instructors from Fred Astaire Dance Studios of Fort Wayne will be teaching the same dances able-bodied people are taught, “but on a different scale,” dance director Carmen Schlatter says.
And with the classes could come the possibility of someone becoming a competitive adaptive ballroom dancer and compete in the 2028 Paralympics.
But for now, the students are looking to gain some confidence and a sense of freedom that comes with dancing.
“I've wanted to do this my whole life,” Hoffman says.
“2, 3 cha cha cha. 2, 3 cha cha cha.”
Schlatter takes the students through the motions of doing the cha-cha. There are 10 on this night, all paired with able-bodied dance partners who have agreed to volunteer to help out in the class.
Adaptive ballroom dance isn't much different from standard ballroom dancing aside from one partner using a wheelchair to move across the dance floor.
Schlatter instructs the dance partners to grab below the arms of their seated partners.
Hoffman and her partner join arms, which allows Hoffman to move forward or back or side to side according to the dance moves. By joining arms, the seated partner can push against the standing partner to gain leverage to move their chair while the standing partner takes the lead, guiding the direction of the chair.
This is Hoffman's second class.
Growing up, Hoffman had two sisters who danced. “I obviously never could,” the 40-year-old Fort Wayne resident says.
Hoffman was born with spina bifida, a birth defect that occurs when the spine and spinal cord don't form properly and can cause severe physical disabilities.
“It was hard going through all those years of dance classes,” says Hoffman, especially when she wanted to dance but couldn't. But at least, she had her piano, she says.
So when she heard about the class, she knew she wanted to learn to dance. When her family found out she was learning to ballroom dance, “their jaws pretty much dropped to the floor,” she says.
But Hoffman doesn't expect to be the best wheelchair ballroom dancer. Instead, she says she is fulfilling a dream and having fun doing it.
There is a look of concentration and determination on Hoffman's face as she works with her partner to do the moves.
Schlatter shows how to add a turn into the dance steps, which requires the seated student to twirl their wheelchair under the arm of their partner. It takes several tries for Hoffman and her partner to get it, but they eventually do.
After a few times practicing, Schlatter claps and encourages the students: “OK, you ready to try it with music?”
Hoffman and her partner face each other, waiting for the music to start.
“Havana, ooo na-na/ Half of my heart is in Havana, ooo na-na...”
The song by Camila Cabello softly plays in the background as the students start from the top.
“2, 3 cha cha cha,” Schlatter says.
Hoffman takes her wheelchair one way, while her partner goes the opposite.
Then they do the turn. Claps break out after the students finish. And for Hoffman, it's all smiles.
There is currently no United States para dance team. However, Fred Astaire Dance Studio has taken the initiative to train its U.S. instructors in adaptive ballroom dancing in the hope that the sport will be included in the upcoming 2028 Paralympic Games in Los Angeles.
Schlatter, along with specialist instructors Dylan Wolf and Joseph Smith, took the training so they could offer para dance in Fort Wayne.
Para dance is ballroom dance for those with an impairment affecting their lower limbs.
“We're having to adapt to what we normally teach,” Wolf says.
But, “it's similar in a way,” Smith says.
The dance studio reached out to Turnstone, which was named one of 14 Paralympic training sites in the U.S. and was the site of the international goalball and judo qualifiers for this year's Paralympics in Tokyo, to offer the class.
The adaptive dance class seemed like a good fit, says Stasha Carrasquillo, chief marketing officer at Turnstone. And while there is potential for someone at Turnstone to become a para dance athlete, right now, the center is offering the class recreationally.
Wolf says the U.S. is behind the rest of the world when it comes to para dance. But he hopes that will change with more classes like the one taught at Turnstone.
“We've been really pleased by the response and turnout,” Schlatter says.
Kevin Hughes, recreation coordinator at Turnstone, is one of the students. The 34-year-old Fort Wayne man has spina bifida and is confined to a wheelchair. He decided to take the class because, “I want to be more confident” when dancing at events or out dancing with friends. He wants to be able to dance with his wife of five years when they go to such events as a wedding.
He is still working up the courage to dance outside the classroom, but at the end of the day, his goal is to be better at dancing.
“We'll see if it works,” he laughs.
In the meantime, Hughes continues to work on his moves. He and his partner Smith follow the cues given by Schlatter.
“2, 3 cha cha cha. 2, 3 cha cha cha.”
Hughes appears to be getting the hang of it. And if the smile is any indication, he will be taking the dance floor in no time.
About the class
The current session of the adaptive ballroom dance class at Turnstone continues on Tuesdays through February. However, more sessions are planned. To participate, call 483-2100. Cost for the class is $5.