TOKYO (Reuters) - Whirling, spinning, reaching, grasping - Japanese wheelchair dancer Kenta Kambara’s emotive performances are wordless testimony to artistic passion and possibility.
Born with spina bifida, a disorder that paralyzed his lower body, Kambara aims to perform at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics opening or closing ceremonies, seeking to send a message to disabled and able-bodied people alike: it’s OK to be different.
“If you can’t walk with your legs, it’s OK to walk with your hands. If there is something you want to do but cannot, it’s OK to find another way,” Kambara, 34, a computer systems engineer and father of a two-year-old daughter, told Reuters.
“These days, people use the keyword ‘diversity’ but not many people have experienced it themselves,” he said. “I want people to understand by seeing me dance that it’s precisely because my body is different that it is interesting. Then that will become a trigger to accept other people’s differences.”
“I also want them to think, ‘Wow, that’s cool!’”
Kambara was in third grade at elementary school in Kobe, western Japan, when his mother told him he would never walk.
“It was a huge shock and I remember crying,” he said. “But that was the trigger to think about how to confront my disability and find different ways to achieve my goals.”
Kambara, whose upper body is well-developed from propelling himself with his arms since childhood, began dancing five years ago and less than a year later, performed at the Rio Paralympics closing ceremony.
The self-taught Kambara’s repertoire includes handstands on his wheelchair, serpentine moves of his lean, muscular arms and slender fingers, and dizzying spins on a collapsed wheelchair, itself an integral part of his performances.
“I’d already come to terms with my disability before I began dancing so it’s not as if dancing ‘saved’ me. But before I started dancing, I often felt my wheelchair was cumbersome in my daily life ... But when it comes to dancing, I feel my use of a wheelchair makes it unique,” he said.
“Disabilities have a negative image, but when it comes to dance, this is something only I can do.”
Although he had long tended to hide his paralyzed legs out of embarrassment, that feeling changes when he dances.
“What I had been hiding becomes something unique that moves people’s hearts,” he said.
Kambara also performs and lectures at schools, where youngsters are clearly impressed.
“I thought it was amazing that someone born with a disability could do such an intense, cool dance,” said eight-year-old elementary school student Konatsu Matsuo.
“Before I thought being in a wheelchair was really tough,” she said. “Now I think that life with a wheelchair can be fun.”
Besides aiming for the Paralympics ceremonies, Kambara harbors a bigger dream - to dance at the Olympics closing ceremony as a way to boost interest in the Paralympic Games.
“There shouldn’t be a division such that if you are disabled, you can only perform at the Paralympics,” he said, but noted that in contrast to the Paralympics, there are no open auditions for the Olympics ceremonies. Results of the Paralympics auditions are expected by the end of March.
Speculation, denied by organizers, is swirling that the Games might be canceled due to the global spread of the novel coronavirus, but Kambara said he was not discouraged.
“Even if the Games are canceled, I will have another chance to stand on a world stage,” he said.
Additional reporting by Kyung Hoon Kim; Editing by Lincoln Feast