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Heart to Heart


How Cheryl Angelelli is helping more people fall in love with dancing

Angelelli’s Instagram profile alone. A world-class wheelchair ballroom dancer and a Paralympic medalist, Angelelli helped to found Dance Mobility, a wheelchair dancing program that offers dance lessons to adults and children with disabilities in the Detroit area.

A lifelong athlete, Angelelli started competitive swimming when she was 8 years old. At 14, while learning a new racing dive with her swim team, she broke her neck. As a C-6 quadripalegic, Angelelli found herself learning to navigate life in a wheelchair—and figured her dreams of swimming in the Olympics were over.

“I pretty much thought that my swimming career was over at that point, and I just focused on my studies and the rehab process,” Angelelli recalls.

In 1996, Angelelli, then working as a journalist, traveled to Atlanta to cover the 1996 Paralympics. She’d heard about the Paralympics, but she didn’t understand the elite level of the competition until she saw it for herself. She set a goal to make the U.S. swim team and compete at the Paralympics in 2000.

“That was probably a little naive because I had to learn to swim in a completely different body,” she says.
But Angelelli, ranked as one of the top 10 swimmers in the world at the time, made the 2000 Paralympic swim team—then competed in the 2004 and 2008 Games. In 2014, Angelelli, now a two-time silver and bronze medalist, retired from competitive swimming. But she couldn’t stay away from competition for long.

“It left a huge void in my life,” she says. “I was looking for another competitive outlet, a recreation outlet, and para dance was something I knew about, so I called around to various dance studios, but no one really knew what to do with me.”

A chance encounter at a speaking event led to a discovery: a nearby Fred Astaire dance studio had hired a new instructor with experience teaching wheelchair ballroom dancing. Angelelli signed up.

“It didn’t take long for me to fall in love with the sport,” Angelelli says. “It’s just so much fun and so different from swimming.”

It didn’t take long for me to fall in the love with the sport.

She loved dancing so much she wanted to find a way to share it with more people. Armed with an idea, Angelelli approached the Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan Foundation with a request to start a wheelchair ballroom dancing program—and Dance Mobility was born.

“I was awarded a grant to start Dance Mobility in 2015,” she recalls. “It really started as a wheelchair ballroom dancing program, but we opened it up to amputees who use a prosthetic. We’ve done classes for stroke survivors. It’s really become an adaptive dance program for anyone with a physical disability.”

Since 2015, Angelelli and her dance partner, Tamerlan Gadirov, have competed on the national and international stage, often against standing couples, with great success. All the while, she has remained committed to serving as a para dance ambassador, forming her own company in 2020 to help instructors at Fred Astaire studios across the country start their own Dance Mobility programs. To date, she’s helped to kickstart programs in Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana with plans for more.

But no matter your skill level or desire, Angelelli says Dance Mobility has a lot to offer.

“Some people who come to Dance Mobility want to compete internationally, and some just come for the recreational aspect,” she says. “Whether you’re interested in competing or you just want to dance recreationally, there’s a place for you at Dance Mobility.”

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