A Manchester wheelchair dancing duo who wowed judges and audiences alike on Britain’s Got Talent last year took time out from intense dance rehearsals and performances at IWM North to chat about Simon Cowell, Paralympic dreams and dance competition wins.
Paula Molton, 42, and Gary Lyness, 40, form award-winning partnership Strictly Wheels and have notched up an impressive number of accolades including UK Wheelchair Amateur Latin and Amateur Ballroom Champions 2011and 2012 and Dutch Open Amateur Latin Champions in 2011, 2012 and 2013.
But not only have they impressed dance judges in the ballroom, they’ve also notched-up a few famous fans along the way.
Gary said: “We went on Britain’s Got Talent to raise the profile of the sport.
“Everyone else who went on the show wanted to please Simon Cowell, but Alesha Dixon had just come off Strictly Come Dancing and Amanda Holden has a background in dance through musical theatre, so we really valued their dance critique and professional opinion.”
They breezed through their audition routine to Alicia Keys’ orchestral rap ballad Empire State of Mind to rapturous applause and positive comments from across the panel.
Paula said: “At the Britain’s Got Talent audition 1500 got up and applauded us, it was absolutely tremendous – there’s no other feeling like that!”
But how did this toe-tapping twosome get involved with the relatively unknown sport in the first place?
Paula explained: “Almost 20 years ago I had pneumonia and had to be hospitalised – while I was there I contracted MRSA.
“I suffered damage to my pelvic area and used my wheelchair part time, but since then my condition has deteriorated so I now use the wheelchair full time.
“I received multiple emails about the 10-week dance workshop back in March 2010 and I, along with my good friend Gary, decided to go along.
“It was run by Ray Bulpitt, who has a real passion for it, and after the 10 weeks were up a group of us wanted to carry on – that’s how Strictly Wheelchair Dancing began.”
Gary had a background in Latin and jazz but had taken a 15-year hiatus before embarking on the next stage of his dance journey.
“I used to dance when I was younger and dabbled with going to dance classes – in my early career I was a Butlins Redcoat, so I’ve always had the entertainment bug,” he explained.
“I hadn’t done anything for 15 years but decided to go along to support my friend and it reignited a love of dance.”
Paula experienced new joy in sampling what wheelchair dancing had to offer, both recreationally and health-wise.
She said: “For me it’s the freedom and a total sense of relaxation. I’ve grown to love dance and I can’t get my head around that it’s something that’s not always been part of my life, and that didn’t damage my body further.
“I’ve lost weight too and feel so much better as a result.”
The Strictly Wheelchair Dancing school adopted the motto ‘you can do it!’ to represent the inclusive nature of the classes.
Paula added: “The nice thing about wheelchair dance sport is that it is something for all ages and abilities – on the competition circuit we’re by no means the youngest there.
“It’s also a pan-disability sport that people with physical impairments, learning difficulties or someone who is blind of deaf, when given the right equipment, can get involved in.”
This is something they’re keen to demonstrate when they host workshops at Imperial War Museum North’s Get Fit for Action summer festival on August 10.
There will be a chance to watch the duo at work performing elegant ballroom numbers and then picking up the pace with lively Latin routines.
But it’s not all display work as Paula and Gary will work alongside dance instructor Ray who can teach people of all ages and abilities the basics – there’s something for everyone regardless of whether you use a wheelchair or stand.
Paula said: “It will be a great thing for people to come along to, to see some dancing and learn some stuff –it’ll be a fun afternoon!”
Following their IWM workshop the couple have set their sights on the next wheelchair dance competition in Moscow which will see them become the first UK couple to perform at top class level in an International Paralympic Committee (IPC) competition.
Gary said: “The first time we went to an amateur-level championship competition we were gauging ourselves against other dancers to see what the benchmark was.
“When we found out we had won we were in utter shock – I’m not ashamed to admit there were a few tears of joy!”
Paula added: “It was absolutely brilliant – to place is an achievement in itself, you’ve done well to make the final, but obviously a win is fantastic.
“We’re now stepping up our practice with Ray to two or three sessions a week ahead of Moscow.”
Gary said: “There’s nothing like sharing the atmopshere of a live audience – there’s no other feeling like that when you hear the applause, it’s just great.”
Wheelchair dance sport has a huge following in Europe and further afield, with 33 countries involved in competitions including China, Russia and Brazil.
And with Rio 2016 on the horizon the pair are hoping that a wheelchair dance demonstration that may be held there, will prove to be the first step towards making it a Paralympic sport.
But as with all things, financial implications play a big role.
Gary explained: “Cost is a huge factor in hosting a European or World championship – but if it was to become a Paralympic sport it could be factored in the overall budget.”
Gary and Paula will be hosting the IWM Get Fit for Action workshops on August 10, at 12pm and 3pm in the Learning Studio.
It’s suitable for all ages and is free entry, but donations are welcome.
You can see their Britain’s Got Talent audition below
For more information about the Get Fit for Action summer festival click here.
To learn more about Strictly Wheelchair Dancing visit http://www.strictlywheelchairdancing.co.uk/
Pictures courtesy of Strictly Wheels, with thanks
Video courtesy of ITV via YouTube, with thanks