Wheelchair ballroom dancer raising awareness

As a young girl, Cheryl Angelelli loved to dance. She also grew up a competitive swimmer, but one day at practice everything changed when she was just 14 years old.

"I walked into swim practice one day and I never walked out. Our swim coach had us doing a new racing dive and I hit my head on bottom of pool diving off the starting block, and I broke my neck and became a quadriplegic," she says. After that moment in 1983, many doubted Cheryl would swim or dance again.

"I remember laying in the hospital room and having the doctors telling me all the things I wouldn't be able to do anymore, and I just remember being so angry and thinking, 'How dare you get to decide the rest of my life. You don't get to decide; I get to decide.' So I was pretty determined that I was going to live a pretty full life," she says.

And a full life it's been. Cheryl is a decorated paralympic swimming champ, holding two world records. But she felt something was still missing.

"I always told people that I miss dancing more than I miss walking," she says. But now, thanks to a special place and a special person, Cheryl is feeling joy again on the dance floor.

Wheelchair ballroom dancing is popular in Europe, but rare here in the United States. Cheryl is trying to change that. At Fred Astaire Bloomfield Hills, she found a wheelchair ballroom dance program called Dance Mobility. It was there she found instructor Sergio Sanchez.

With a grant from the Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan, she and Sergio recently traveled to Arkansas to show a little girl who was paralyzed in a car accident, that she, too, could dance again. They surprised her with a private ballroom dancing lesson so she could perform in her school's musical.

Watching wheelchair ballroom dancing as a performance is touching, but for the couples who take part in the dance mobility lessons, this is a whole new way to connect.

"The able bodied person who suddenly realize they have something else they can do with their partner. They can dance, and the joy you see in both faces is just amazing. It's a cool program," says Evan Mountain from Fred Astaire Bloomfield Hills.

Cheryl and Sergio are training for a national competition in November, but she feels she's already won.

"I love being on the dance floor. It's just a sense of freedom and movement," she says.

Thanks to the Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan, Fred Astaire Bloomfield Hills is able to offer the monthly wheelchair ballroom group lessons for free. For more information, visit www.fredastaire.com/bloomfield-hills/2015/05/26/dance-mobility/.