Astaire in a wheelchair

Okay, so he isn't as well-mannered. But "born gimp" Jeff Van Nostrand says, "I can dance to just about anything."

Published May 24, 2007

Jeff Van Nostrand stares blankly at himself in the studio mirrors. He is 45, with Bluto biceps and a scraggly ponytail, an ornery cuss who likes to hunt, work on his Monte Carlo and go clubbing on weekends when he has the cash. Women always give him the wrong phone number. Maybe this will improve his luck.

The music begins, and he turns his head, extends his hand.

Sue Green shimmies into his grasp, and he spins away. They whirl and tease to the hot thump of the Black Eyed Peas.

She smiles; he glowers.

She cajoles; he balks.

Her legs move with lithe grace; his hang limp in his wheelchair.

When their weekly rehearsal is over, Jeff rolls away, not bothering to say thank you or goodbye. After nearly a dozen lessons, Sue has gotten used to his gruffness. They've memorized the intricate steps Sue choreographed, and soon they'll be ready to perform in public.

But this dance is more complicated.

- - -

"I'm a born gimp, " Jeff says matter-of-factly, the way people mention that they're Italian or Presbyterian. Spina bifida is America's most common birth defect that causes permanent disability. Jeff's spinal column never fully closed. He had 19 operations before age 8; 17 of them, he asserts, either changed nothing or made things worse.

He sits now in abar where whiskey is served in those little plastic cups that dentists fill with mouthwash when it's time to rinse. Hardly the kind of place to unwind after a samba lesson, but more his element.

He used to be on a wheelchair basketball team. He used to play rhythm guitar in a garage band. He used to be a race car mechanic. But then, he laments, "I got old." He pushes up a sleeve to display a scar on his shoulder. Torn rotator cuff. That limits him more than any wheelchair.

But he can do 360-degree wheel stands, tipping backward and spinning like a top. When his shoulder's not hurting too badly, he can do back flips, chair and legs in the air, rebounding on one palm. His chest is broad, and his arms are pure muscle.

He met Sue Green at an extreme adaptive sports expo. She is 56, as much fluttering possibility as he is coiled anger, like parakeet and python. She gave up her Arthur Murray career to teach dance to students with physical and mental disabilities. She bought her own wheelchair to see what it was like, using it to choreograph routines with her regular dance partner and significant other, an electrician named Gary. Wheelchairs can move in an arc, swivel, glide, do circular motions - everything you need to dance except go sideways.

When Sue teaches sit-and-dance at a nursing home, the patients are slumped in their wheelchairs "all hollow-eyed and lackluster, but once the music starts, I get up in their faces and . . . for an hour, these people come alive. I know it's working."

Her dream is to train a wheelchair dance team. It's a competitive sport in Europe and Asia, she notes. So she put out the word: free lessons for willing students. There was only one taker.

Jeff Van Nostrand.

Sue had pretty much given up on anyone showing for that first class. "Gary and I were practicing with our own wheelchair. Out the window, I saw a head rolling back and forth, pacing, just this head. Back and forth. I thought, 'That has to be someone in a wheelchair.' It was Jeff, smoking and rolling back and forth, " Sue recalls. Finally, he came in.

What kind of dancing, he wanted to know. He'd been freestyling since he was 18 and, he boasts, "I can dance to just about anything, including Irish bagpipes if I have to." He told Sue flat out that he hates ballroom. She began flipping through her music collection, playing him samples. Tango, cha-cha, swing. He hated everything.

Sue was getting desperate. She had promised to bring wheelchair dancers to the World of Possibilities Expo at the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium in mid May for a demonstration. All bets, though, were riding on this one surly man who told her, in fairly vulgar terms, that he just wanted to pick up chicks. Couldn't she show him some hip-hop moves?

Sue put on the Black Eyed Peas' Dum Diddly, and they settled on the samba.

Jeff told her after the first session that he wasn't sure whether he'd come back.

"Why do you think she gave me free lessons?" he crows over his third whiskey. "She sees a whole hell of a lot of unadulterated talent." Try doing spinning wheel stands sometime, he suggests; try making that look effortless when the physics come down to three times the work with one-third the muscle mass.

Jeff is fascinated by physics. He can ramble on forever about the perpetual motion machine. Wouldn't he love to build one of those. "I could actually build a nuclear weapon from scratch. Or if you bring me a UFO, I'll reverse-engineer it and duplicate it." He contents himself with tinkering on his four cars instead. "There's not a thing in the world I can't make a car do, " he brags.

"Other kids cry when Old Yeller gets shot. I cried at the first Love Bug movie when Herbie ran away." That's the closest Jeff gets to exposing his heart.

"You've still got people out there who look at gimps and old people as easy prey, " he says, reminiscing fondly about the lessons some fools have learned the hard way by assuming he's weak. "On average, once a month I'll get into an encounter, but I'll snarl real good and they'll back off." He won't go into specifics. "Born gimps, their parents tend to be overprotective. My parents tried, but it didn't take. . . .You've got to learn at a young age that this is a Darwinistic society."

It's just Jeff and his mom now, sharing a house in Damascus. His dad passed away, and Jeff has no siblings. His mother isn't well, he says, so he has to deal with more of the maintenance than he used to, like figuring out how to rig the lawn mower up to his wheelchair, a tango no one teaches. He's not complaining.

- - -

He did show up again, which frankly surprised Sue.

"He's been very good, " Sue reports. "He only missed one lesson. I had to ball him out." He didn't apologize, but he didn't stand her up again, either.

"Hell, it beats spending 40 bucks a month for the gym" is what Jeff says.

The expo is this weekend, and now that Jeff has the routine memorized, Sue decides she can throw in a few more moves.

"We're putting the styling and excitement in it, because you already know the pattern here, " she announces. She has an idea: They can wiggle. She rolls her shoulders in sultry demonstration. He mimics the move.

"How long we got to wiggle for here?" he wants to know. " 'Cause I don't do that for very long." Does he have to remind her about his weak torso and bum shoulder? He keeps wiggling while rocking his wheelchair in a circle around her.

"It punches it up!" Sue cries.

"I don't think it needs punching up when you've got a partner doing 360s on a wheel stand, " he says.

"We'll see how it feels, " she says.

Jeff tells her how it feels. She ignores the expletive.

The hardest part isn't teaching him to dance. It's teaching him to make eye contact, to smile. To engage.

When Sue forgets a step, Jeff jumps in like a sarcastic director. "You again! Do it over again -- Take 547."

"We almost got it, " Sue coaches. "We almost got it."

Roll, glide, spin, wiggle. Jeff is panting when the music stops. Sue asks if he can do it again.

"Go for it, " he says.

- - -

She ran into him outside the studio recently, at a black-tie fundraiser for Caring Communities, the nonprofit organization sponsoring the coming expo. He showed up in his usual golf shirt and black leather bomber jacket and joined her table. Sue watched him hit on four former Miss Wheelchair Americas and dance with some other attractive young women. Sue took a spin with him, too. He seemed happy enough, for Jeff, at least. Ask him if he got any phone numbers, and he just laughs.

They have only a couple of lessons left.

They take their places on the floor, and when the music starts, he makes an effort now to soften his granite face ever so slightly, to smile, almost, before he reaches out and asks to dance.