Jessica Trujillo is a world champion salsa dancer. Her team, the Omambo Dance Project, won the professional salsa team division at the World Latin Dance Cup last year. When she called her best friend back home in Los Angeles from the competition at the Deauville Hotel in Miami Beach, the champ was most excited about a division she did not dance in.
As Trujillo remembers it, founder of the World Cup, L.A. and salsa pioneer Albert Torres credited the mixed ability dance team Limitless as the inspiration for a brand new division at the World Cup for “physically and mentally challenged dancers.” In fact, he named the new division Limitless. After Torres saw Limitless perform at the Los Angeles Salsa Congress in September 2014, he asked the team leader’s permission to use the name at the 2014 World Cup in December.
Even though she never met the competitors before, Trujillo felt proud as she admired the showmanship of a young Brazilian woman with Down Syndrome who leapt and spun with her partner, a car accident survivor who caught her with his remaining arm.
“It really felt good to know that we were part of something that helped make that possible,” Trujillo remembers.
The two friends had already witnessed the bursting of limits on the dance floor closer to home. Debbie Wong, an occupational therapist, incorporates dance into sessions with her patients at Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center in Los Angeles. She noticed that many patients included dance on the long list of things they believed they could no longer do. So she started a class at the hospital called, “So You Think You Can’t Dance.” She invited Trujillo, a professional dance instructor, to join her. Soon the friends were organizing outings to Latin dance clubs for the group.
The dancers found confidence far beyond the dance floor. Wong and Trujillo take turns telling the story of Jesus Ayala, a young man who survived a spinal cord injury from a gunshot wound. Ayala’s mother called one of Wong’s coworkers, concerned that her son had isolated himself in his bedroom. The co-worker recommended Wong’s dance class.
“He peeked in, and I jumped up and hugged him and made him dance with me,” Wong recounts. Soon, he was performing with Wong as his partner on stage. Now he serves as a mentor to other young men with injuries. And, Trujillo reminds Wong, “He just got a girlfriend!”
Dancing with girls, the friends concur, is a big draw for men who join the classes. “For a lot of gentlemen, when they get injured, they lose that masculine role,” Wong observes. “For guys with disabilities, it’s such an opportunity to dance with girls.”
In a phrase rarely heard in the dance world, she adds, “I can’t find enough girls.”
But getting the men out on the dance floor was not enough. Wong realized the dancers needed opportunities to perform in public. “We noticed that the barrier was not that they couldn’t dance,” she points out. “But that other people thought they couldn’t dance.”
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She invites guest dance choreographers to create pieces for the 12 dancers of mixed abilities, including herself and Trujillo, on the Limitless dance team. “The biggest challenge is figuring out how to use their strengths,” says the dancer. That is the most important hurdle for many of the dancers as well. For some, the goal is simply getting stronger and faster. Wong recounts how two dancers figured out how to dance on stage without a cane: “Now they don’t need to use a cane for anything in their lives.”
This year, Wong will not be waiting for a phone call to hear how things went in the Limitless division. All 12 team members will be on stage, at the Deauville, hoping to claim the title to the division that already bears their name at the 2015 World Latin Dance Cup.
– Celeste Fraser Delgado, artburstmiami.com
The 2015 World Latin Dance Cup
December 14 through 20 at the Deauville Beach Resort, 6701 Collins Avenue, Miami Beach. See schedule and pricing at worldlatindancecup.com.