Icy prickles of fear flooded through me with such intensity that I was sure I had swallowed Alaska, and the butterflies that multiplied with momentum in my belly made it difficult to breathe. Omaha was the destination, and on the car ride there my emotions were a mess. It didn’t make sense exactly. I had done this before, just not in a very long time.
Fade back to 2007. At the end of January, I decided to compete for the title of Ms. Wheelchair Kansas. It was not a choice I made lightly. In fact, when I first got the application for the program in the mail, I scoffed. I have been described in many ways through the years, but beauty queen is not a title that I would give myself. And it wasn’t simply that I had doubts about my physical appearance. Adding complexity to that fact, I had bought into the stereotype that people with disabilities could never be attractive. Even if the coach that carried me to prince charming was accessible and had a lift, once the clock struck midnight, my wheelchair would be waiting and he would turn away.
As I read through the application, though, I came to learn that the Ms. Wheelchair America pageant was not a beauty contest. Instead, the program strives to empower women who are wheelchair mobile to advocate and articulate the needs of people with disabilities. The state title holder gets to travel and speak to lots of people about issues that affect her life, and speak for those who cannot.
Well, that was right up my alley. At least I wanted it to be. I have a passion for advocacy, and given that I one of the things I wanted to do was motivational speaking someday, I thought this platform might be the perfect way to practice. And so a few weeks later, as I sat as one of the contestants competing for the crown, I wasn’t sure what to expect. But what I got was beyond my wildest imagination.
The weekend was comprised of various workshops, and then on Sunday was the crowning ceremony. Accessible self-defense. What the Americans with Disabilities Act says. How to advocate successfully. And there was one more.
You want me to do what? Dance? You do see my wheelchair, right? Dancing is not something I would put at the top of my list of abilities. My life circumstance meant that I couldn’t dance, didn’t it? It just wasn’t going to happen. JoAnne, a former titleholder had different ideas. She had started a dance company and wanted the contestants to perform a routine at the crowning ceremony.
Since I was a toddler I have been fascinated by dance. The elegance. The beauty. The way people could get their bodies to move to music was enchanting. I knew doing it well took talent. I also knew it wasn’t for me. In my life dancing was like kissing your elbow. A really cool idea but impossible to accomplish. Dance became my code word for everything that seemed out of my reach.
But a former title holder asked me to do it, so I gave it a shot.
In a word, I hated it. Okay, that’s three words, but you get the idea. 🙂
My spastic muscles don’t move in time to music and rhythm does not mix with my reality. To me, at that time, dancing only underscored everything I feared. I was slow. I was awkward. I was not able. The whole premise of the pageant was to prove those messages wrong. I didn’t see the point. So I told the powers that be that I didn’t want to dance, and went on to win the crown.
Little did I know that on the journey, I would have to do the impossible. I would have to learn to dance.
First dance step. I had to learn how to move outside my comfort zone. Naturally quiet and a bit introverted, I am not used to approaching people to make conversation. I can be awkward. But that would not do. Lorraine could be shy, Ms. Wheelchair Kansas couldn’t be. Turns out that most people open up if they are asked the right questions. I also learned that using my advocacy skills didn’t mean I was being obnoxious; it meant that I was fighting for my rights. Being quiet about that was not something I was comfortable with.
Second dance step. Arms up and turn. I learned to pay attention. There is power in being positive, and beauty in every situation. Really. Focusing on negatives doesn’t get me anywhere, and makes most situations feel worse than they are. If I truly seek the silver linings, sometimes I don’t see the clouds. I met a woman during that year whose spinal cord injury was so high that she needed the support of a ventilator to breathe. Twenty-four-hour nursing care was required to sustain her life; she could not be left alone. Not even for a moment. Yet, she awoke every day with a smile. Someone asked her at one point what keeps her going. Her response? Without skipping a beat she said, “My disability takes many things from me, but it will never take away my faith in God or my ability to love my children.” Boom. I have never had things put into perspective so profoundly.
During my reign, I went around the state and spoke out about discrimination, disability etiquette, and living your dreams. I offered advice to kids about how to discern the bullies from your “besties” and how to believe in yourself. But the most meaningful to me were the people I met along the way. The other state title holders from around the country were phenomenal.
- A woman who attended college on a wheelchair tennis scholarship.
- A woman who was a quadriplegic and had lost 50 pounds by working out at her local YMCA
- A college professor.
- A journalist.
- A Paralympic athlete and motivational speaker
- A woman pursuing her Ph.D. is psychology
- A mom who had married her husband with a disability in a ceremony on national television.
There was story after story of woman wheelchair users who defied the odds and smashed stereotypes as often as I have a bad hair day.
Third dance step. Move with the music. I had to change my mind set. I had to believe way down deep in my gut that nothing was impossible and redefine the reality that I thought of as routine. What did I want? I didn’t know that for sure, but I did learn that I was doing myself a disservice if I put limits on it. Other people could put me in a box with a label if they so chose, but I wasn’t going to help them tape it up and put a bow on top. I had seen that things could be different. Box busting was about to become my specialty.
In 2008, my year had come to a close and I was sitting at the pageant ready to pass on my crown to another. JoAnne, the former titleholder who started the dance company was there with her instructor. They performed exhibitions of wheelchair ballroom dance. Considering what had happened the year before, I wasn’t prepared to be impressed.
Instead, I was mesmerized. I had never seen anything like it, and it moved me to my soul. Poised. Flowing. Lovely. Magic. Wheelchair ballroom dance. What I always wanted to do.
With tears streaming down my face, I asked JoAnne how I could learn to do what she just did. She told me how to begin the journey. I started meeting with an instructor on a regular basis, but by that point, I had been learning “dance lessons” for some time.
Fade back in to a few weeks ago. I was on my way to my first dance competition in almost two years. Icy prickles of fear flooded through me with such intensity that I was sure I had swallowed Alaska.
Would I forget the moves? Would I mess up the timing? Would the audience be receptive or react negatively? Would people laugh? Were all the stereotypes really true? Was I kidding myself?
About thirty seconds before we were to perform, Brandon, my partner, leaned over and whispered in my ear.
“Don’t think. Just dance…”
Then he confidently led me out to the floor. With every note of music, my insecurity fell away. I trusted Brandon. I trusted myself. I took a deep breath and smiled as we started our routine. It would be okay. We were dancing. And I had done that many times before.