Dance breathes new life

[b]When we’re healthy and young, we seldom think of how handicapped people live. However, according to statistical data, 10 percent of the planet’s inhabitants are disabled: through injury on the road or from work accidents; as a result of military conflict; or simply through disease. Many are disabled from birth. Of course, however great disablement may be, everyone has the right to a full life. Our attitude towards the handicapped is a sign of our humanity[/b] There are over 20,000 wheelchair users in Belarus; each year, the number rises by 400. Accordingly, the country is implementing a state programme to improve the quality of life of those who are less mobile.
When we’re healthy and young, we seldom think of how handicapped people live. However, according to statistical data, 10 percent of the planet’s inhabitants are disabled: through injury on the road or from work accidents; as a result of military conflict; or simply through disease. Many are disabled from birth. Of course, however great disablement may be, everyone has the right to a full life. Our attitude towards the handicapped is a sign of our humanity
There are over 20,000 wheelchair users in Belarus; each year, the number rises by 400. Accordingly, the country is implementing a state programme to improve the quality of life of those who are less mobile. Among its measures is the organisation of sports competitions and dances. Irina Mazharova of Mogilev received terrible injuries in a road accident, leaving her sunk in depression for seven years. However, she began learning to wheelchair dance, harnessing all her willpower to ‘return to life’. For a decade before her accident, she had enjoyed folk dancing. Now, after regaining some fitness, she has won the World Cup and the Continental Cup, while also becoming silver medallist in the Wheelchair Dance Sport World Championships.
Dmitry Loban of the Brest Region was hit by a train and survived by a miracle; however, he will be a wheelchair user for his remaining days. Dance has also given him a reason to enjoy life again. He has twice been named Belarus’ champion and took bronze at the winter Paralympics-2010, hosted by Vancouver.
Minsker Yelena Serkulskaya suffered severe trauma to her spine while freestyle skiing. She didn’t leave her flat for a decade but dance has helped her overcome her terrible depression. She has three times been named world champion and European champion twice. Since her accident, she has graduated from university, married and now helps others who find themselves in a similar situation of losing their mobility.
It’s impossible not to feel huge admiration for these people, who have overcome such a reversal of fortune. Our admiration is far stronger than any feelings of compassion or pity — as are natural in such situations.
Since 1996, Belarusian wheelchair users haven’t missed a single major international competition and have earned dozens of gold medals. We can’t help but wonder who organises their training…
The fullest answer can be given by Valery Kolomiets, a famous track-and-field athlete and former coach. His pupil, Belarusian Oleg Sheshel, was part of the Soviet Paralympics team, at Seoul in October 1988. Oleg now holds three Paralympic golds and heads the Belarusian Paralympic Committee. Meanwhile, Mr. Kolomiets is the Chairman of the Belarusian Foundation for the Support of Disabled Athletes, the Director of the Dancing and Recuperation Centre and an Honoured Coach of Belarus.
“Some twenty years ago, in the former USSR, the idea was just forming of helping those who had partially lost their mobility to return to a full life via dance,” explains Mr. Kolomiets. “What is dance? It is a connection: a dialogue. When we stretch out an arm to a partner and look into their eyes, we dance. The major aim is to combat loneliness. Our group of enthusiasts decided to set up a centre; the state gave us eight hectares of land on a former military training range, as well as several cottages which needed restoration, and assisted in finishing a sports hall. Since 2003, thousands of disabled people from Belarus, Russia and Kazakhstan have completed our wheelchair dancing programme. Now, our colleagues from Azerbaijan and other countries of the former USSR plan to join our programme.”
On a bright winter’s day, we set off to Kolodishchi, located near Minsk, to see how the programme really works. After the road sign, the car turns off the motorway into a street of attractive cottages. We have to stop at the gates of the rehabilitation centre, which is surrounded by a coniferous forest on the other side. Through an open-work fence, we can already see activity on the ski track; a group of handicapped children from Moscow are enjoying their final day — many accompanied by their parents. The rehabilitation centre takes an individual approach to each child. Some train in the fitness hall or go skiing; others might draw and cut figures from paper. Everyone enjoys the excursions to Minsk and theatre visits. Communicating with peers and finding new experiences brings hope and joy. In summer, children have the chance to garden in a greenhouse, feed chickens or visit Berezinsky Biosphere Reserve, which offers tasty shashlyk, fishing and its unique nature museum.
It’s sometimes more difficult to work with adults, as they tend to suffer more from depression. The centre aims to give them more responsibilities and independence, such as letting them shop for food; kitchen units are found in every bedroom and, of course, there are plenty of market stalls and stores nearby. Each person takes their turn to cook.
Involved with the project are Yelena Shilkina, an Associated Professor of the Choreography Chair at the Belarusian State University, choreographer Antonina Khalipskaya — a scholarship holder of the President’s Sports Club, and Larisa Klementenok — an international class Master of Sports of the USSR. They are assisted on a voluntary basis by former and current centre pupils, such as world wheelchair sport dance champion Alexey Zukhtikov and European champion Anna Sirotyuk, as well as students from the Belarusian University of Culture, who take internships at the centre. If necessary, medical assistance is provided. The centre has its own dentist (paid for from its own funds) where guests can receive treatment free of charge or at a considerable discount.
Only the wheelchair-bound know how much sweat and how many tears must be shed to make their wheelchair as obedient as the legs of a dancer. Irina Gordeeva of Moscow has passed 14 dance training courses at the recuperation centre of the Belarusian Foundation for the Support of Disabled Athletes; she’s now a world and Russian champion. She helped set up the Moscow Wheelchair Dance Sport Federation where she trains others voluntarily, reproducing her Belarusian experience. It’s arousing very serious interest.
Since 2006, the Belarusian dance and rehabilitation centre and the Moscow Filantrop Fund have organised a dance training programme for handicapped children without parental guardians. Needless to say, they appreciate attention even more than children from loving families. Those from the boarding school in the small Belarusian town of Ivenets will long remember their trips to Moscow for open championships, where they have won three times. Dr. Gertruda Krombholz, from Munich, is also involved; her aid with the Belarusian-Russian programme for wheelchair dance no doubt helped them win the highest awards at the World Championships in Hanover in 2010. The Belarusian delegation also took part in the 1st European Social Dance Congress, organised under the auspices of the EU in German Bochum. The Belarusian programme of social rehabilitation for disabled people through wheelchair dance has gained recognition there. In particular, it has been highly praised by Regina van Dinther, the President of Landtag, of the North Rhine-Westphalia region.
Medals earned in sport halls are worth more than we might think. They signify a return to life. With self-esteem comes the ability to fall in love and the desire to raise children; some couples already have two children. We can all learn from their determination and courage; if we remain strong in spirit, we can achieve our goals, learning again to appreciate and love life!

By Vladimir Atamovich
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