Aubrey Meade, instructor and studio manager at the Fred Astaire Dance Studio in West Bloomfield, rehearses with Andrew Downs, 23, of Royal Oak on November 7. The couple are the first American to compete internationally as a wheelchair dance couple.
ROYAL OAK / WEST BLOOMFIELD – When Andrew Downs, 23, of Royal Oak, attended his first dance mobility class at the Fred Astaire Dance Studio in West Bloomfield, he thought, “I can do this.”
Downs, who was born with spina bifida, started wheelchair dancing in 2016, and at the end of the month he and his partner, Aubrey Meade, 28, from Lincoln Park, will be heading to Bonn, Germany, to participate in the World Para Sports Dance Championships from November 28 to 30.
The duo are the first American to compete in international competition as a wheelchair dance couple.
“It’s a lot of pressure, but it’s a good pressure,” said Downs. “I’m super excited. We’re technically the first to do it, so it’s a huge honor.
Downs and Meade have competed in the Fred Astaire World Championships in Las Vegas, the Chicago Harvest Moon Ball, a Canadian Paralympic Dance Sport Competition in Toronto and twice in the Michigan Dance Challenge.
“I’ve always been athletic and very good at other sports, but this one I want to go really far,” Downs said. “The best thing about it is probably the social connections you make. “
He said he appreciated the rich culture, passion and support shared by members of the dance community. He also enjoys the process of working with Meade.
“She’s more than a dance teacher, really. We have built a friendship, and I am blessed to have built this connection. She is not only a professional dancer, but a great human being. She’s talented and knows a lot of things, ”Downs said.
Downs is an outpatient and can walk, but began using a wheelchair regularly in grade six.
“I’ve always used a wheelchair to some extent, but from a distance it made things easier,” he said. “From a mental point of view, it’s not a thing. It is simply a form of transportation for friends, family and loved ones.
Meade teaches, runs the Dance Mobility portion of the Amputee Dancer program, and manages operations at the West Bloomfield studio. She moved to the field of dance from the world of opera and musical theater, in which she had the opportunity to do international tours.
“I went to college to teach voice and music, but when I was in my last semester I had a voice injury,” Meade said. “I could still sing, but I couldn’t continue at the same level of performance. “
She has performed and competed as a ballroom dancer across the United States
“We’re excited and a little nervous (to compete in Germany),” she said. “We just have to anchor, believe, and practice as hard as possible, so it’s mainly muscle memory that comes from building it up and repeating it a million times.”
She said the competition will feature both Standard Division and Latin Division dances, in which the standing partner cannot have both feet off the ground. Sometimes during these dances there may be up to 20 couples being judged on the floor at a time, she said.
“As a lady I back off and Andrew is the only one who’s going to see where we’re going,” Meade said. “You move very fast. It’s exciting, but also a little more scary.
Each couple will also participate in a freestyle dance, in which they will have the floor to themselves and can perform lifts, dips and tricks. Downs and Meade are competing for a mashup of “The Pink Panther Theme”, which traditionally begins and then turns into an electronic remix.
“Often my feet are not on the ground,” she said. “It’s very difficult.”
Evan Mountain and his wife, Lada, own two Fred Astaire Dance Studios, a national franchise, in Bloomfield Hills and West Bloomfield.
Mountain said para-dance is a popular sport around the world, but it’s just starting to take hold in the United States. In 2015, he partnered with wheelchair dancer and para-swimmer Cheryl Angelelli to create Dance Mobility, a program funded by the Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan to teach ballroom dancing. amputees and people in wheelchairs.
The free program is offered monthly and each session attracts about 15 to 20 people, Mountain said.
“It not only enables people to be physically active, but it gives them a social outlet,” he said. “When we started the program, I continued to think that it would really benefit the person in the wheelchair, but I realized that the standing partners would benefit as well. “
Since its inception, instructors from across the country have participated in dance mobility workshops to spread the adaptive dance trend.
“When the wheelchair program started, wheelchair dancing here in the United States was non-existent,” Mountain said. “This is something I couldn’t believe would ever happen. We started the program to help some people, but it continues to grow and grow. “
He said he would like to see wheelchair dancing included in the Paralympic Games when they return to the United States in Los Angeles in 2028.
Downs said it would be a dream come true to be a Paralympic athlete. He recently obtained an Associate of Arts degree from Oakland Community College and has said he would like to pursue a career that combines journalism and biology.
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