'Born gimp' meets choreographer


Jeff Van Nostrand stares at himself without expression 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. Worth a shot, is what he figures.

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, flaunt and glide to the hot thump of the Black Eyed Peas on a boombox.

She smiles; he glowers.

She cajoles; he balks.

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

When their weekly rehearsal is over, Jeff rolls away as usual, not bothering to say thank you or goodbye. Sue was hurt at first, but after nearly a dozen lessons, she has gotten used to his gruffness. So they shrug each other off, go their separate ways. They've memorized the intricate steps Sue choreographed, and soon they'll be ready to perform in public. They've got their routine down pat now.

But this dance is more complicated than that.

"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 endured 19 operations before his eighth birthday; 17 of them, he asserts, either changed nothing or made things worse.

"The first 7 1/2 years of my life were mostly spent having surgery or waiting for something to heal," he recalls. Model cars offered distraction from a little boy's boredom and pain. He liked taking toys apart just to put them back together. Loved motors. Still does.

He sits now in a cinder-block bar in suburban Jessup, Md., 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 this is more his element than that dance studio down the street.

He talks longingly about what he used to do. 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 surgical scar on his shoulder. Torn rotator cuff. That limits him more than the wheelchair ever did. He can't lift engine blocks anymore, or shoot a basketball.

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, too, 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.

Dance changes people. 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." When she line-dances with mentally retarded students at community centers, she is engulfed in group hugs at the end of the lesson.

"It may sound kind of sad to work with people like this, but I get so much out of it," Sue explains. "A lot of lonely people make it into the dance studio as a way to be around other people."

Her big dream now 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 scheduled 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." She began flipping through her music collection: 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 mid-May for a demonstration. If people could just see how exciting and graceful this was, maybe the dance troupe could become a reality. 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 helluva 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. Got his first one at 18, a '71 Firebird, "fire-engine red, of course." He souped it up. These days, he's rebuilding a '73 Mustang to sell. Mechanics has always been a natural talent for him.

"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 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. I've been to too many funerals. Born gimps who are overprotected don't fare well. I've seen 'em go down from drug overdoses, car wrecks. A fellow ate a .45. You gotta learn at a young age that this is a Darwinistic society."

It's just Jeff and his mom now. 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 would rather rail about liberals who want to take away a man's right to smoke openly in a dive bar, or own a gun, and if you want to get into government conspiracies, how about the programs to eradicate head lice in poor, rural areas in the 1940s, like West Virginia, where his mother grew up and had her scalp dusted with DDT (a now-banned insecticide) at the public pool? Jeff is certain that's what caused his spina bifida.

Try pointing out another interesting correlation, though, like the one between a lifelong obsession with engines and a little boy stuck in a wheelchair.

"Huh, maybe. Never considered it," he says, and goes on talking about carburetors.

He did show up again, which frankly surprised Sue.

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

Sue has tried to open up conversations with him about dancing, to no avail.

"I think he's getting something out of it, but doesn't have the words," is how she puts it.

"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 gotta 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? Grudgingly, he keeps wiggling while rocking his wheelchair in a circle around her.

"It punches it up!" Sue cries happily.

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

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

Jeff tells her how it feels. She ignores the expletive. She touches his arm. "Good job."

When they first began dancing, he would come 15 or 20 minutes late, then stop when his shoulder or wrist starting aching. He would drink a couple of cups of coffee and talk about engine blocks. But he built up his stamina, and she built up hers.

"He exerts a huge amount of energy," she frets. "I've tried to get him to slow down, go smaller, but he fights me all the way. He wants big, athletic, sweeping movements."

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

She ran into him outside the studio recently, at a black-tie fundraiser for Caring Communities, the nonprofit organization sponsoring the upcoming expo. He showed up in his usual golf shirt and black leather bomber jacket. 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.

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