“I’ll be your human walker,” tango instructor Gabriela Condrea told Tho Nguyen when he showed up to class in a wheelchair. He stood, and though he hadn’t walked in many years, the intimate dance led to a breakthrough.
The tango instructor was confused.
“There’s a guy who’s here for tango lessons,” the bar manager told her. “And he’s in a wheelchair.”
Gabriela Condrea walked to the front of Amber, a Belltown nightclub where she had been teaching a Happy Hour Tango since the fall of 2013, and found Tho Nguyen in a battery powered wheelchair, alone.
“Are you here for the tango class?” she asked him.
“Yeah,” he said, beaming.
“OK,” she thought to herself. “Let’s see how this goes.”
She would learn that Nguyen had suffered a stroke on the morning of his 11th birthday. He could stand, but not walk without support.
“I didn’t know in what manner he would participate,” Condrea recalled of that evening in July 2014. “But he was welcome to join us.
“I remember saying, ‘Hold onto me. I’ll be your human walker, your shopping cart.’”
Condrea, 34, knew the potential tango has. She knew the mechanics of two people standing and moving together, one leading and the other pushing through each step. She knew how to achieve balance and flow.
But Nguyen, 31, had to have the guts, and the faith, to show up at all.
“I was feeling sad,” he explained of the period when — urged on by his counselor — he started Googling meetup groups and saw there were tango lessons at Amber every Tuesday night. It seemed the answer to a lot of his problems.
He arranged a ride from his parents’ home in Renton through King County Metro’s Paratransit program.
“I’m determined,” he said. “I wanted to be with people, socialize and relax and work on my mobility.
“I was never able to walk without holding on,” he continued. “And when I started doing it with Gabriela, I felt confident. I wanted to force myself to do something more, physically. I wanted to be able to work on my walking and my depression at the same time.”
But it was a risky venture. The floor at Amber is concrete. Nguyen was deathly afraid of falling, and rightly so: “It’s like being tied up with a rope and being pushed over,” Condrea said of Nguyen’s fear.
And yet, the closeness of the tango worked.
“It’s a nonverbal conversation,” Condrea said. “You make eye contact, but you don’t exchange any words.”
That intimacy allows her to sense when Nguyen’s balance is failing, or if he is starting to fall away from her: “I sense it right away because we’re so close.”
After a few months of “dancing” in a close embrace, Condrea started to slowly pull away from Nguyen so he could stand for a little while on his own, his posture primed and his confidence up.
It took just over a year, but one day when Condrea pulled away, Nguyen looked at her and said, “Watch this,” then took three steps without support. It was the first time he had done so in 20 years.
“I was overwhelmed,” Condrea said. “I didn’t expect it, but he is so determined, and he works so hard.”
Nguyen has since been able to walk 108 steps on his own.
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What did his parents say about all this? Nguyen took a moment to think.
“I don’t know,” he said. “It’s hard to say. They were complaining about me coming home too late.”
(“He’s tango dancing!” Condrea said. “He’s walking on his own!”)
He has since moved out, and into low-income housing in Bellevue.
Condrea has captured their progress in a video called “Tho’s Walking Journey.”
In January, Condrea accompanied him to an evaluation with a new physical therapist at Valley Medical Center. They demonstrated how he holds onto her, and how he moves through each step.
As a result, Valley contracted Condrea to teach “Neuro-Tango for Stroke Survivors” on Wednesday afternoons, starting March 30 and ending April 20.
Condrea, a former Garfield High School cheerleader and eighth-grade teacher, first encountered the tango in 2008, when she went to South America to do volunteer work. On her first night in Buenos Aires, she went to a tango club on her own, took a class and fell in love with the dance.
“People were hugging and moving around the dance floor in a circle,” she recalled. “They were floating. I was amazed at how graceful they looked and all the different ways they intertwined.
“It wasn’t the rigid, straight lines, the fishnets and red rose in the teeth,” she said. “It was a conversation, and it felt very organic to watch.”
She stayed in Buenos Aires for two years, studying and writing about tango, and went on to write “When 1+1=1: That ‘Impossible’ Connection,” a book about the impact of the tango. In 2010, she started leading workshops and classes like the one at Amber.
While Condrea works with other students, Nguyen parks his wheelchair under the bar and walks his way around it, holding onto the back of the bar stools.
Classmates have been patient and helpful, taking turns moving with him.
“The core group is kind of like a little family,” Condrea said.
The bar owner, Wade Peterson, even brought in a cake to mark Nguyen’s “tango birthday.”
Nguyen is determined to someday get out of his wheelchair for good, and depend only on a cane — or a dance partner.
“I feel like I’ve become more interactive and more confident about myself and more connected to others,” he said. “I feel like I’m more normal.”