After a story came out about a stroke victim who learned to walk again through tango classes, his teacher has been working with a wave of people with similar disabilities.
Everyone is looking for a miracle.
And there are those who believe Gabriela Condrea has found one for people who struggle to move, or even to take a simple step: the tango.
For four years, Condrea has been teaching weekly Happy Hour tango classes at a Belltown bar called Amber. One day in 2014, a man named Tho Nguyen showed up in a wheelchair, saying he wanted to dance.
After two years of weekly lessons that involved leaning against Condrea “like a shopping cart,” Nguyen was able to walk more than 100 steps on his own. A story about their journey together inspired a wave of people with similar disabilities to seek Condrea out.
They came to her movement classes at Valley Medical Center — a gig that was supposed to last for just four weeks, but is now ongoing. She started teaching a weekly “TangoStride” class at Brainworks, a resource center for those who have had traumatic brain injuries (TBI) related to strokes, car accidents or falls.
As a result, the focus of Condrea’s tango practice has shifted dramatically — from the simple joy of the dance, to the life-changing ability to move again.
The only thing that isn’t moving is a funding stream. Students pay $10 to $12 per class, but it isn’t enough to grow the program.
So Condrea is launching her own nonprofit called “Hugs That Empower,” and is kicking it off with a party from 2-5 p.m. on Nov. 12 at the WeWork Holyoke Building in Seattle. Ticket sales will go to expanding her classes and developing a training program. Students will share what they’ve learned, and there will be lots of music.
“If people want to dance, I won’t stop them,” Condrea said.
She spoke of a student named Shawn, who was hit by a truck when he was 7. He’s now 48. He came to Condrea’s class in June, unable to stand without the help of a chair or a bar.
At his third class, he told Condrea, “I want to dance,” then managed to walk across the room. He has more than doubled his record for standing on his own, from one minute, 20 seconds to three and a half minutes.
As a result, he’s become more social, more engaged, and is now meeting with a job coach.
“He hadn’t walked in 40 years,” Condrea said, tearing up. “My students say they feel empowered, and watching them motivates me. I think my role is to create the context for them to gain courage.
“One little step at a time, we can get places,” she said. “You don’t have to move the whole mountain at once.”
Condrea, 34, receives a small stipend from the $10 or $12 students pay for the classes, but it’s not enough to cover her expenses or time. She makes up the difference with dance workshops and private lessons, and sales of her book, “When 1+1=1: That ‘Impossible’ Connection,” a book about the impact of the tango.
“I have to figure out a way to make it viable,” she said of her mobility classes. “I’m trying to piece it together and make the tango thing work.”
The truth is, we all have to figure out a way.
“We’re all one misstep from a brain injury,” Condrea said.
Statistics bear this out: In 2001, the number of emergency-room visits, hospitalizations and deaths related to TBIs in the United States were 521 per 100,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In 2010, the rate for TBIs spiked to 823 per 100,000.
Indeed, with the basics of the tango, Condrea has found a way to get her students to be more than rehabilitated — they’re reinvigorated.
“People feel less like a patient and more like a person again,” she said. “That’s good for everyone involved that person’s life. And society.”