Cornell’s first wheelchair ballroom dancing course rolled out last Thursday and is expected to make the activity more inclusive, according to class instructors Nicole Agaronnik ’19 and Tai Penn ’19.
The course was created in collaboration with Cornell Union for Disability Awareness and the Cornell Ballroom Dance Club, aiming to inspire enjoyment and learning but also attempting to raise awareness about disabilities.
With help from the Human Ecology Alumni Association, Agaronnik and Penn received a grant that helped them become certified instructors with the American Dance Wheels Foundation and bring wheelchair ballroom dancing to Cornell.
Agaronnik called wheelchair ballroom “an inclusive version of ballroom dancing.”
“This goes in line with C.U.D.A.’s disability pride campaign,” she explained. “Society has historically associated more shame with our identity. Wheelchair ballroom dancing is one of those mediums that can highlight our different capabilities and what we really do.”
Agaronnik said she has been familiar with wheelchair ballroom dancing for about three years and has practiced as a competitive ballroom dancer since a very young age. Then, at the age of 13, she was diagnosed with scoliosis.
“To have a pretty serious curve was a challenge within the dance community,” Agaronnik said. “It made me feel like I needed to hide it from everyone.”
Despite her difficulty, Agaronnik said she competed at a national level and was even ranked among the top five in the U.S. during her later years in ballroom dancing.
“That’s why I became interested in wheelchair ballroom,” she said. “I truly believe that people can dance and be amazing performers and artists and be just as good and inspirational regardless of their ability.”
Penn discovered his passion for wheelchair ballroom dancing in his freshman year at Cornell. Within a year, Penn was able to perform with Agaronnik at the Sign and Dine dinner, sponsored by Cornell University Deaf Awareness Project and C.U.D.A. Their performance was well received and sparked interest in the Cornell community, according to Jonathan Goldstein ’17, president of C.U.D.A.
“One of the great things about their work is that it’s done for social change,” Goldstein said of the organization. “It’s done as a form of art, but through the work that they’ve done, it’s allowed people to understand more about C.U.D.A. and more about disability work in general.”
C.U.D.A. has been active at Cornell for about 15 years, but has only recently developed its social aspect. Previously, C.U.D.A. largely existed to address administrators about making the campus more physically accessible, according to Goldstein. Now, the group is reaching out to empower the disabled community in the social world.
“C.U.D.A. does … many workshops and dialogues with different campus groups, faculty staff and students,” Goldstein said. “Making inclusion a priority is important.”
However, Agaronnik and Penn have yet to find proper sports chairs for the class, citing its high cost.
“Sports chairs are optimal for dance or any physical activity because they are extremely light due to their composition, very compact, and shaped in such a way that allows a dancer to have as much speed, momentum, and comfort as possible,” Agaronnik said.
Both Agaronnik and Penn said they are optimistic about the future of the course. “I think the more people find out about this, the more it’ll grow with time,” Agaronnik said.
“I kind of hope that because of this class people will come out of it saying disabilities of all kinds as a more casual thing,” Penn said.
Several students in the class said their experiences in the class have been overwhelmingly positive. The format allows standing dancers to pair up with their seated partners, using wheelchairs, to move together.
“Nicole and Tai are wonderful teachers because they take the time to understand my challenges and help me work to overcome them on the dance floor,” said Nadia Bon ’19, a seated dancer.
Cody Goldsmith ’17, president of the Cornell Ballroom Dance Club, agreed saying he felt “empowered through ballroom dance to share experiences of thrill and laughter with peers I may have never met otherwise.”
The class meets every Thursday from 8 to 9 p.m. at Helen Newman Dance Studio and is open to all Cornell students and Ithaca residents, according to Agaronnik. The course is currently offered as a non-credit course, but if interest increases, Agaronnik said the administration has agreed to make the class a for-credit physical education course.