Aubrey Meade, an instructor and studio manager at the Fred Astaire Dance Studio in West Bloomfield, rehearses with Andrew Downs, 23, of Royal Oak, Nov. 7. The pair are the first Americans to compete internationally as a wheelchair dance couple.

Aubrey Meade, an instructor and studio manager at the Fred Astaire Dance Studio in West Bloomfield, rehearses with Andrew Downs, 23, of Royal Oak, Nov. 7. The pair are the first Americans to compete internationally as a wheelchair dance couple.

Photo by Erin Sanchez


Local team first U.S. pair to compete in World Para Dance Sport Championships

By: Sarah Wojcik | Royal Oak Review | Published November 12, 2019

 Andrew Downs, 23, of Royal Oak, and Aubrey Meade, 28, of Lincoln Park, perform at the Michigan Dance Challenge.

Andrew Downs, 23, of Royal Oak, and Aubrey Meade, 28, of Lincoln Park, perform at the Michigan Dance Challenge.

Photo provided by Aubrey Meade

ROYAL OAK/WEST BLOOMFIELD — When Andrew Downs, 23, of Royal Oak, witnessed his first Dance Mobility class at the Fred Astaire Dance Studio in West Bloomfield, he thought, “I can do that.”

Downs, who was born with spina bifida, began wheelchair dance in 2016, and at the end of the month, he and his partner, Aubrey Meade, 28, of Lincoln Park, will head to Bonn, Germany, to compete in the World Para Dance Sport Championships Nov. 28-30.

The pair are the first Americans to compete internationally as a wheelchair dance couple.

“It’s a lot of pressure, but it’s good pressure,” Downs said. “I’m super excited. We’re technically the first ones to ever do it, so it’s a super huge honor.”

Downs and Meade have competed in the Fred Astaire World Championships in Las Vegas, the Chicago Harvest Moon Ball, a Canadian Paralympic DanceSport competition in Toronto, and twice at the Michigan Dance Challenge.

“I’ve always been athletic and very good at other sports, but this one I want to take very far,” Downs said. “Probably the best thing about it is the social connections you make.”

He said he enjoys the rich culture, passion and support shared by those in the para dance community. He also enjoys the process of working together with Meade.

“She’s more than a dance instructor, really. We’ve built a friendship, and I’m blessed to have built that connection. She’s not just a professional dancer, but a great human being. She’s talented and knows a lot of things,” Downs said.

Downs is ambulatory and can walk but began using a wheelchair regularly in sixth grade.

“I always used a wheelchair to a certain extent, but as a distance thing, it made things easier,” he said. “From a mental standpoint, it’s not a thing. It’s simply a transportation device to friends, family and loved ones.”

Meade teaches lessons, leads the portion of the Dance Mobility program for dancers who are amputees, and manages operations at the West Bloomfield studio. She transitioned to the dance realm from the world of opera and musical theater, in which she had the opportunity to tour internationally.

“I went to college for voice and music education, but when I was in my last semester, I had a voice injury,” Meade said. “I could still sing, but I couldn’t continue the same level of performance.”

She has performed and competed as a ballroom dancer throughout the U.S.

“We’re excited and kind of nervous (to compete in Germany),” she said. “We just have to ground ourselves, believe and practice as hard as we can, so it’s mostly muscle memory from reinforcing it and going over it a million times.”

She said the competition will include dances from the standard division and the Latin division, in which the standing partner cannot have both feet off the floor. Sometimes, during those dances, there can be as many as 20 couples being judged on the floor at once, she said.

“As the lady, I’m going backwards and Andrew is the only one who is going to see where we’re going,” Meade said. “You move really fast. That is exciting, but also a little more nerve-wracking.”

Each couple also will compete in a freestyle dance, in which they will have the floor to themselves and will be able to perform lifts, dips and tricks. Downs and Meade are competing to a mashup of “The Pink Panther Theme,” which starts out traditionally and then morphs into an electronic remix.

“Many times, my feet are not on the floor,” she said. “It’s very difficult.”

Evan Mountain and his wife, Lada, own two Fred Astaire Dance Studios, a nationwide franchise, in Bloomfield Hills and West Bloomfield. 

Mountain said para dance is a popular sport globally but is just beginning to take root in the U.S. In 2015, he partnered with wheelchair dancer and para swimmer Cheryl Angelelli to create Dance Mobility, a program funded by the Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan to teach ballroom dance to amputees and people who use wheelchairs.

The free program is offered monthly, and each session attracts approximately 15-20 individuals, Mountain said.

“It allows people not only a physical activity, but it gives them a social outlet,” he said. “When we started the program, I kept thinking it’s going to really benefit the person in a wheelchair, but I realized the standing partners also benefit from it.”

Since its inception, instructors from around the country have attended Dance Mobility workshops to spread the trend of adaptive dance.

“When the wheelchair program started, wheelchair dancing here in the U.S. was nonexistent,” Mountain said. “It’s something I couldn’t believe would ever happen. We started the program to help some people, but it continues to just grow and grow.”

He said he would love to see wheelchair dance be included in the Paralympic Games when they return to the U.S. in Los Angeles in 2028.

Downs said it would be a dream come true to be a Paralympics athlete. He recently graduated from Oakland Community College with an associate degree in arts and said that academically he would like to pursue a career that combines journalism and biology.

Call Staff Writer Sarah Wojcik at (586) 218-5006.