February 8, 2019 3:58 pm
Updated: February 8, 2019 7:45 pm

‘You only have one life to live’: Kelowna paraplegic competitor prepares for first dance competition

WATCH ABOVE: Community reporter Shay Galor drops in on a rehearsal for the upcoming Swinging with the Stars dance competition in Kelowna where Blake Harper will be competing in a wheelchair with his partner Laura Elliott.

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Over the last decade, more than $1.6 million has been raised for the Central Okanagan Hospice Association [COHA] through the annual Swinging with the Stars fundraiser.

But the dance competition, a spin-off to the television hit show Dancing with the Stars, has never seen a dance duo quite like Laura Elliott and Blake Harper.

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“In 2002, I was being towed behind a snowmobile on an inner tube and I hit a tree. So I broke my back. Paralyzed from the waist down,” said Harper, a mortgage broker from Kelowna. “It was a year trying to figure things out again and get through rehab. And then I just never let it stop me from doing anything. I just still do everything that I would normally do; I just do it a little differently.”

READ MORE: Swiss researchers help paraplegic man walk again

These days, Harper’s list of activities include bi-weekly rehearsals for his upcoming performance at the 11th annual Swinging with the Stars dance competition.

“I love dancing. It’s always been something that I’ve enjoyed. I think COHA is a great cause,” Harper said. “And also inclusivity. I wanted to be able to show people that even if you’re in a chair, you can still go do whatever you want to do and be a part of it and make a difference.”

Harper has partnered with Laura Elliott, artistic director of a non-profit dance school in Kelowna called Creator’s Arts Centre.

“I’ve done duets before, but I haven’t done a duet with somebody with his particular injuries or that would be seated for the whole piece,” Elliott said. “It’s been tons of trial and error, but so much fun to figure out what our bodies can do together.”

Learning what moves the couple could pull off was a work in progress.

“It has been a journey to say the least. Laura has been awesome,” Harper said. “We started off just looking through the internet and finding different ideas on what could be done with dancing in a chair.”

Elliott was pleasantly surprised to see just how creative and involved Harper has been since starting rehearsals several months ago.

READ MORE: ‘A terrible nightmare’: B.C. man left a paraplegic after boat collides with humpback in Haida Gwaii

“He’s excited about the process. He’s excited to learn about the process of dance creation, to throw in his ideas,” Elliott said.

Another surprise to Elliott is how much Harper has influenced her way of thinking.

“I haven’t danced in about 10 years,” Elliott said. “I can’t do all the moves that I used to. I’m not as flexible as I used to be. But having Blake as a partner really makes you say ‘Am I going to cry that I can’t do the splits anymore? The guy’s in a wheelchair and he’s willing to give this a go. Let’s just see where we’re at and have a lot of fun with it.’ And it’s just been great.”

Both dancers are excited to help support this particular cause.

“COHA is an organization that has been supporting the Central Okanagan for 37 years, providing emotional, spiritual, and social practical support, all facilitated by trained compassionate volunteers,” said COHA executive director Natasha Girard.

The fundraiser is the biggest event of the year for the charity.

“We have five individual dancers, some are coupled, and we have five group teams,” Girard said “They’re all out putting the final touches on their dance.”

In addition to donations raised from ticket sales, each dancer is fundraising individually.

“This year, the funds are going to support our bereavement program. We are experiencing a 25 per cent growth over last year,” Girard said. “It’s also going to our comfort care programs as well as our hospice palliative care services.”

READ MORE: Adam Rippon talks ‘Dancing with the Stars: Juniors’ and the challenges he faces as a judge

As for Harper, he’s definitely caught the dancing bug.

“I’m so excited to do this. It’s my favourite day of the week,” Harper said.

In fact, the dance partners have some plans in place once the fundraiser is over.

“I don’t want this to come to an end because it’s so much fun doing it,” Harper said. ‘So we talked about starting classes for people that are in a chair, or with disabilities, and their partners, to be able to teach them how to dance.”

The 11th annual Swinging with the Stars takes place Feb. 23 at the Delta Grand in Kelowna. The event is open to the public, although tickets are officially sold out.

Those wishing to make a donation to support Team Harper, or any of the other dance competitors, can do so online.

“You only have one life to live and you should try everything that you want to try,” Harper said. “Whether you think you can or you can’t, just go and give it a shot.”

© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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