Dance class gets amputees back on their feet

Published Dec 11, 2013 at 4:10 am (Updated Dec 10, 2013 at 9:32 am)

The temperature outside was near freezing on Dec. 7, but that didn’t stop some of the people inside the Pittsburgh Dance Center from wearing shorts.

The individuals wearing shorts were showing off their prosthetic legs proudly during that afternoon at the Pittsburgh Dance Center’s Embrace Dance Project.

Started about 15 months ago by Holly Kirby and her husband Dr. Anthony Kirby, a physiatrist, or pain management physician, Embrace Dance Project is a free program for amputees or those with limited mobility who would not be able to keep up in a traditional dance class. Holly and Anthony Kirby, who live in the South Hills, own the Pittsburgh Dance Center along Liberty Avenue in Pittsburgh’s Bloomfield neighborhood. The Embrace Dance Project is a 501-c3 non-profit organization.

“You wouldn’t believe how many people say, ‘I can’t dance because…’ and they have a long list of excuses,” Holly Kirby said. She said the idea for a program for amputees came about when a man with a limp and a cane walked up the stairs to the studio and said, “Can you teach an old guy how to dance?”

At that time, Holly Kirby had not thought of an adaptive dance program and told the man that he would probably need private lessons.

“I literally see so many people with gait dysfunctions,” Holly Kirby said. She said a regret she has is that she never saw that man again – she thought since the dance center had started and was being promoted that he would find her again, but he never did.

“It’s a passion of mine,” said Holly Kirby, a professional, who has been dancing for more than 20 years. She is experienced in ballet, Irish step dancing, salsa and ballroom dancing.

She teaches the adaptive class on two Saturdays per month to whoever wants to attend. On a typical Saturday, they can have 10 to 30 students. The people include the amputees as well as volunteers who dance with them.

“This is probably the most fulfilling teaching I do,” Holly Kirby said. “When I see them smiling, I’m smiling.”

She jokes that the dancers’ call their prosthetic legs their “titanium tango legs.”

Ivy Patterson, 28, of Blawnox had her left leg amputated in October 2011 after battling a staff infection and has been dancing at the Pittsburgh Dance Center’s Embrace Dance Project for a few months.

“I love it,” she said. “I always wanted to try ballroom dancing lessons and when I found out about this it was a pleasant surprise. It’s a relaxed environment and you get to meet and talk to new people.”

Jon Zeigler of Glenshaw, who had his left leg amputated after he broke his ankle and developed infections that would not go away, has been attending class since March.

“I haven’t missed except for two weeks. I came to try to get balanced,” he said. “I’m still trying to master the tango.”

Zeigler said he would recommend the program to anyone. “It’s about the camaraderie and being with other amputees. There isn’t anything I won’t try.”

Dave Gilson, who had his leg amputated about 10 years ago due to cancer, and his wife Dawn of Gibsonia have been coming to the program for about nine months.

“I enjoy it. Holly makes it a lot of fun. I always wanted to learn to dance,” said Dave Gilson.

Dawn Gilson joked, “We didn’t dance when he had two legs.”

Now, the couple looks forward to weddings and other functions where they can show off their dance moves.

“It is therapy, but it’s not a support group. It’s a life group,” said co-owner Dr. Anthony Kirby.

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