Embrace Dance Project: Lessons for amputees in the joy of movement

Bloomfield dance studio owner Holly Dayton-Kirby and her doctor husband are using their talents for therapy

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Around noon one day last fall Holly Dayton-Kirby, proprietor of the Pittsburgh Dance Center in Bloomfield, was cleaning the bathrooms in preparation for that evening's classes when a tall silver-haired man wearing khakis and a polo shirt came into the studio.

"He was just standing there by the desk when I came out of the bathroom, cleaning supplies in one hand, a dirty rag in the other," Ms. Dayton-Kirby recalled.

"Can you teach an old guy with a limp how to dance?" he asked.

"I kind of sheepishly smiled and said, 'Of course I can,' " Ms. Dayton-Kirby said. "I asked why he limped."

In response, the man tapped on his right leg. "It made a funny sound, a hollow sound," Ms. Dayton-Kirby recalled.

She had never taught a person with a limb amputation how to dance before. She told the gentleman that private lessons probably would be better for him and handed him her business card. He left and never returned. But she kept thinking about their meeting. A week or so later she told her husband, Anthony Kirby, a pain management specialist at Jefferson Regional Medical Center in Jefferson Hills, "I want to start a dance program for amputees."

"My husband was extremely excited," she recalled. "This is what he does. He gets people back on their feet."

Dr. Kirby said he thought his wife's idea was terrific.

"I do the majority of rehab for amputees," he said. "Dancing is also a form of therapy. It's going to help them with their balance, their mobility and help them improve their function outside of dancing."

Dancing "is not just linear motion, like a lot of therapy," Dr. Kirby said. "Dancing requires a lot of single-stance activities and lateral motions, which you don't get as much of in standard therapy programs."

"We were looking at how we can give back to the community," he said. "This was an ideal way."

So the couple created a charity, the Embrace Dance Project. In February, they began offering free dance lessons on two or three Saturdays a month to people with amputations and to others with disabilities. They've been a big hit.

"When I lost my leg I didn't feel like a complete person," said Uta Burrelli, 71, of Baldwin, who had her right leg amputated in 2009. "I feel like a human being again."

Ms. Burrelli has been a regular since the Kirbys began offering these classes. She was one of five dancers with amputations to attend "Salsa for Soldiers," a fundraiser for Embrace Dance on May 5.

"I always loved ballroom dancing," she said. "I thought I never would be able to do it again. And now I'm doing it."

William Werkheiser, 38, an engineer who lives in Apollo, had lost both of his legs to amputation.

"I like this because it gets me out of the house," he said. "You're with other amputees. We push each other. It's very motivational."

This was his third time, said Jeffrey Kopf, 50, of Penn Hills, a truck driver who had a leg amputated in 2011 following an accident.

"It's fun," he said. "I just wish I was in better shape."

Regis Bolden, 62, a retired security manager for US Airways who lives in Penn Hills, had both legs amputated last year. He has one prosthetic leg, and expects to get the second this week. His wife, Marcia, is even more excited about it than he is.

"We want to do the tango, the salsa, the rumba," she said.

Danielle Ratleff of Mc-Keesport had a leg amputated after suffering an injury while jogging six months ago. This was her first time at an Embrace Dance event. She didn't dance. Her affected leg "is a little too sore right now. But she said she's looking forward to participating as soon as she's able.

"We're coming back," Ms. Ratleff said. "It looks like fun."

In addition to Dr. Kirby, typically there are one or two other physician volunteers on hand for Embrace Dance events, in case any of the dancers require their assistance. Especially generous with her time, the Kirbys said, has been Maryann Micknevich, a physiatrist affiliated with UPMC.

"Eventually we'd like to expand [Embrace Dance] to people with other kinds of gait dysfunctions," Dr. Kirby said.

Dancing can motivate people who lose a limb to amputation to stay active.

Adrianne Haslet, who teaches ballroom dancing at the Arthur Murray studios in Boston, lost her left foot in the Boston Marathon bombing.

"I absolutely want to dance again, and I also want to run the marathon next year," Ms. Haslet told the Associated Press. "I will crawl across the finish line, literally crawl, if it means I finish it."

Thanks to advances in prosthetic technology, "if they were walking before they had their amputation, we can have them walk again," Linda Arslanian, a physical therapist at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital, told ABC News.

As soon as she's able, Ms. Haslet has an invitation to appear on ABC's "Dancing With the Stars" program.

Former model Heather Mills, ex-wife of Beatle Paul McCartney, competed on "Dancing With the Stars" in 2007 despite having a prosthetic leg.

But to his knowledge, Dr. Kirby said the only dance program for people with amputations is the Embrace Dance Project here in Pittsburgh,

Their biggest challenge so far has been in teaching people who've had above-the knee-amputations how to step backward, he said.

"The knee was designed to bend forward, so this was a little tricky, but we've handled it pretty well," Dr. Kirby said.

To learn more about the Embrace Dance Project, to contribute or to volunteer, email: embracedanceproject@gmail.com, or call Ms. Dayton-Kirby at 412-681-0111. The Pittsburgh Dance Center is at 4765 Liberty Ave., second floor.

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Jack Kelly: jkelly@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1476. First Published May 13, 2013 4:00 AM


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