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MANILA (Reuters Life!) - Wheelchairs filled in for dancing shoes as disabled Filipinos competed in a recent ballroom dancing contest in Manila aimed at boosting their confidence and acceptance of their physical state.
Fourteen disabled contestants grooved to the jive, the rumba and the cha-cha-cha, with professional dancers as partners, for prize money of 5,000 pesos ($100) and a chance to compete abroad.
The Tahanan Walang Hagdanan, or "House With No Steps," an organization that shelters and provides employment opportunities for the disabled, provides wheelchair ballroom dancing as a form of therapy and exercise for its residents.
Finalists in the first dancing contest staged by the group included amputees and paraplegics, who used their arms and upper bodies to execute dance moves. Some could only move one hand.
"I hope people don't judge us based on physical appearance. With the help of dancing, we can show our real emotions and share it with others," Juanito Mingarine, a national wheelchair basketball champion who has won pentathlon gold at the Southeast Asian Paralympics, told Reuters.
Mingarine, a polio survivor who has competed in 45 countries, believes his skills with the wheelchair could be useful on the dance floor too.
His wife, Elkie, a paralympic games gold medalist whose leg was amputated due to bone cancer, is also a wheelchair dancer, and along with her husband, won the top male and female prizes at the dancing competition.
"Perhaps God had planned for my leg to be amputated because I had always dreamt of becoming a Philippine athlete. And maybe God wanted me to meet my husband," Elkie Mingarine said.
While sports such as racing, swimming and basketball are familiar to the home's residents, ballroom dancing was a different story. Tahanan Walang Hagdanan brought in professional dancers every week for a month to train the residents.
Instructors said facial expression, head rotations, arm movements, and of course the wheelchair, compensated for the lack of leg movement and the dance competition finalists were judged on timing, eye contact and coordination.
"Their bodies cannot function completely, as they've lost the sensation in their legs. But they can turn quickly. They can move their hands and heads quickly. They double their effort, and I really appreciate it," said professional dancer and instructor Victoria Huyatid.
Twenty-four-year old Julius Obero, also a polio survivor, said wheelchair jiving has given him self-confidence as well as recognition among his peers and family.
"Through this I can avoid thinking about my disability, that I'm like this, weak. And now I interact more with my fellow disabled, whereas before, I couldn't accept that I was this way," Obero said.
There are nearly one million persons with disabilities in the Philippines, around 135,000 of whom have lost either or both limbs or are paraplegic.
Editing by Miral Fahmy