What scares you? I like to tell myself that there isn't much that frightens me.
I've gone scuba diving with sharks, rappelled down craggy mountain faces and belly-crawled through guano-choked caves. I've yawned my way through gore-streaked haunted houses, munched popcorn through the gross-out flick Human Centipede and eat lengua y cabeza from sketchy-looking taco trucks without a second thought. Heck, I've even driven the hairpin turns of the Pacific Coast Highway through zero-visibility fog in an underpowered Prius hybrid (eco-mode isn't your friend when trying to pass trucks on a 15-degree grade). And just the other week, I exorcized my acrophobia by hovering in a door-less helicopter over the Legoland construction site (see OW's Culture 2 Go blog for the video proof).
Be it a sign of bravery or (more likely) boneheadedness, I've become largely immune to threats to my physical and intestinal health. But that doesn't mean there isn't anything out there that frightens me. Want to make me wet my pants? Just whisper the words "public performance," particularly if there's dancing involved. Sure, as a theater producer/director I've occasionally cast myself in a show, usually in a non-speaking Silent Bob role, and only when I can't find someone better (or cheaper) to do the job. But unless large amounts of alcohol are involved, you'll hardly ever see me on a dance floor, especially if any kind of challenging choreography is involved. (If anyone has film footage of me flailing to Taylor Dane in Tony & Tina's Wedding at the old SoulFire Dinner Theatre, I'll pay you to burn it.)
That's why I accepted an invitation last week to experience others doing what I dare not do myself. It came in the form of an email from John Davis, president of the Orlando Chapter of USA Dance, which is "a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization serving as the National Governing Body for DanceSport (the competitive form of ballroom dancing)." Ordinarily I have little interest in the ossified strictures of ballroom dancing, and I gave up on So You Think You Can Dance? after even Mia Michaels' choreography devolved into stupid human tricks. But a sentence in Davis' pitch for a special dance showcase featuring developmentally disabled performers caught my eye: "It will be just like Dancing With the Stars, but with special needs dancers instead of celebrities." How could I resist?
That's how I found myself inside the Lake Brantley South Gymnasium, adjacent to Forest City Elementary School on Sand Lake Road in Altamonte Springs, on a sunny Sunday afternoon. By the time I arrived, shortly before showtime, the gym's pull-out bleachers were already filled almost to capacity, mostly with family members of the performers. Davis, serving as MC in a white tuxedo jacket and spangled tie, introduced the "special stars," each paired with a volunteer partner, for a quartet of group dances directed by Dale Wenner. They started with a box-stepping fox trot, followed by a salsa (dedicated to victims of the Japanese tsunami) and an audience-participation round of the macarena (there goes the money I had to spend on psychotherapy after that evil earbug took hold in 1995). For the finale, they broke out the colorful cowboy hats for a boot-scootin' barn dance to Will Smith's "Wild Wild West."
Between the special needs group performances, normally abled dancers demonstrated a range of different ballroom styles with varying degrees of success. Older entertainers ranged from a slick arm-twisting exhibition by the Salsa Heat Dance Studio, to an uncomfortable creepy/clumsy doctor and nurse duet to "Bad Case of Loving You." Christian Sola directed the young adult Sensual Bachata Team through a Moulin Rouge-flavored "Roxanne," filled with terrifying tosses and near-miss lifts. The most polished performance came from a few pre-teen teams, like siblings Sam and Kimberly Hamilton from Culture in Dance, who pulled off a surprisingly sophisticated waltz that transformed into a "Last Dance" disco - impressive, especially considering their combined apparent age of around 16.
But the real stars of the show were the special needs dancers themselves, whose Down Syndrome and other disabilities did nothing to dampen their infectious lack of self-consciousness and (cliché as it sounds) inspiring enthusiasm. Unlike USA Dance's usual competitions, there were no scores, and every participant went home a winner with an award. Davis told me that the organization, which is funded solely by private donations and fundraisers rather than grants, has given away more than $10,000 over the years. But the self-confidence this program - held in cooperation with the city of Altamonte Springs Special Community Services and the Advisory Board for the Disabled, which also offers bowling, baseball, field trips and other social activities - gives to its participants appears even more valuable. Watching their fearless movement, I felt a twinge of jealous admiration: Who cares about handicaps if you've got the courage to get up and dance?