Ellie Roush, left, and instructor Gabriela Condrea during a neurotango class at Valley Medical Center in Renton, Washington. Another patient's wheelchair is nearby. (Click arrow to watch video by Emily Rasinski.)
Ellie Roush gathers in a circle with the other tango dancers at Valley Medical Center and says she’s not giving up.
Roush, 76, has gotten around in a wheelchair after a stroke in 2012 paralyzed her left side. The former pediatric nurse had been active her whole life when, during a yoga class, of all things, she sustained both an ischemic and hemorrhagic stroke. But that doesn’t stop her from trying to dance.
(Click to enlarge.) Ellie Roush dances with Gabriela Condrea as her husband, Wayne, offers support.
Ellie Roush dances with Gabriela Condrea as her husband, Wayne, offers support.
“It makes me happy,” she says of the weekly class. Tango is allowing her to reclaim part of her soul. Roush can now take small steps, stand up straighter, lift her knee and boost her spirits. When she gets tired, she sits in her chair and follows the music with her hand.
She calls the instructor, Gabriela Condrea, an “angel.”
Two years ago, Condrea was teaching tango at her Seattle Tango Happy Hour when Tho Nguyen rolled up in a wheelchair. Nguyen, 31, had suffered a stroke at age 11 and hadn’t walked for 20 years. But he wanted to push himself.
Just hang on to me, Condrea told him. In a year, Nguyen took three small steps without support. Since then, he has taken many more.
Volunteer Collin Graham, a employee in Valley's distribution department, assists Tho Nguyen.
(Click to enlarge.) Volunteer Collin Graham, a employee in Valley Medical Center's distribution department, assists Tho Nguyen.
Condrea, 34, accompanied him to a physical therapy appointment at Valley and demonstrated their “hug walking.” Then Nguyen walked on his own, which lead to a NeuroTango pilot at the hospital with a few students. It was so popular that Valley offered it again, said Sarah Devine, a stroke nurse practitioner.
Devine is a huge advocate for the class and the power of connection. “This is about how to feel better about being in the world,” she said.
Roush’s face lights up when the music starts. It was 1954 when she last tangoed – with her father, who was working as a reclamation engineer in the Congo. Nguyen attends the class as well. His infectious laugh and quiet determination would inspire any stroke survivor.
For Condrea, who taught gymnastics and has long been a fan of movement, teaching NeuroTango is the perfect blend of her skills and passion. She received a master’s in education and taught eighth grade for four years. During a volunteer trip to Peru, she visited Argentina and so enjoyed the organic way people moved to tango that she spent two years in Buenos Aires learning the dance. It was through her instructor, Rodolfo Dinzel, that she danced with people with disabilities – Parkinson’s, Down syndrome, blindness. She also taught a stroke survivor who was using a cane.
(Click to enlarge.) Stroke survivors, family members and volunteers gather for a group hug after the tango class June 8 at Valley Medical Center. Instructor Gabriela Condrea is in floral dress.
picture of stroke survivors, family members and volunteers gathering for a group hug after the tango class June 8 at Valley Medical Center.
So when Nguyen showed up at her Seattle meetup, Condrea was undaunted.
His progress was slow, she said. “He would take two steps forward and one step back.” Now he can take 100 steps at a time and has gained a lot of confidence.
Condrea, a published author who created the program "NeuroTango: Hugs that Empower," is in the business of empowering brain-injury survivors, using tango to help them regain and maintain mobility.
“I create a situation for people to work on and challenge their mobility,” she said. “I am so inspired by my students’ determination. Learning to meet ourselves where we’re at is hard work, and they teach me so much.”
Valley Medical Center hosts NeuroTango classes at 2 p.m. Wednesdays for any community member who has had a stroke. A second class for traumatic brain injury survivors is offered at 11 a.m. Wednesdays at Seattle BrainWorks. Visit neurotango.com for details.