Story highlights

Teri Westerman became confined to a wheelchair as a teen

She co-founded a dance company in 2012

(CNN) —  

Ever since she was a young girl, Teri Westerman knew she was destined to be a dancer.

Teri Westerman was born in Illnois and moved to Colorado when she was 2 years old.
PHOTO: Courtesy Teri Westerman
Teri Westerman was born in Illnois and moved to Colorado when she was 2 years old.

“I grew up watching ‘The Nutcracker’ on television,” she remembers. ” “Someday,’ I said, ‘I’m going to do that.’ “

But Westerman faced a challenge: She had cerebral palsy.

Growing up, she endured more than 15 surgeries on her legs to help with mobility. The last one left her in a wheelchair permanently.

After 15 surgeries, Westerman was confined to a wheelchair.
PHOTO: Courtesy Teri Westerman
After 15 surgeries, Westerman was confined to a wheelchair.

“I don’t regret going through any of them because every experience I’ve had has made me the person I am, and I like who I am,” she says. “So I really don’t have anything to complain about.”

Westerman went to a small school for disabled children; her class consisted of six people. She participated in concert choir, chess club and student council. She also excelled as a student, making the honor roll. She is grateful her parents didn’t integrate her into the large public high school.

“I would’ve been lost in the shuffle,” she says. “I don’t think I would have learned as much in that setting, because I would’ve just been forgotten and pushed aside. Not just because of my disability but because of sheer numbers.”

She’s also thankful her parents and brothers didn’t treat her differently. “That was probably the biggest gift they could give me,” Westerman says with a smile.

She was a “normal kid,” and that allowed her to become independent.

When she was 11, she decided she wanted to dance, and her parents were supportive.

“They said, ‘If you want to do something, then try as hard as you can to make it happen,’ ” the Colorado resident recalls. “And if you can’t, then we’ll help you find a way that you can do it.”

Westerman started dancing with an all-wheelchair square dance team called the Colorado Wheelers. The feelings of flying and being free are two of the reasons she loves to dance.

“If I’m dancing with a partner, they can take me by the hand and propel me across the floor or stage,” she explains. “And my hands, my arms, are completely free to do whatever I want to do.”

After graduating high school, Westerman tried her hand at acting but faced disappointment at audition after audition. Producers and directors were unsure how to incorporate her into shows. So she and a few friends decided to start a theater company for people with disabilities, called Phamaly.

Westerman and dance partner David Mineo.
PHOTO: Courtesy David Mineo
Westerman and dance partner David Mineo.

Then she met Paul Fiorino.

“He was the first person who saw me as a dancer, not a person with a disability who wanted to dance,” Westerman says.

Phamaly and Fiorino’s company Ballet Arts Theatre collaborated to perform at “Dance Event 2000.” It was there that Westerman met and was paired with her long-term dance partner, David Mineo. The connection was instant.

“To be Teri’s dance partner has been quite an interesting, unique experience,” Mineo says. “She’s just a beautiful spirit.”

In 2000, Westerman won the Ms. Wheelchair Colorado crown.
PHOTO: Courtesy Teri Westerman
In 2000, Westerman won the Ms. Wheelchair Colorado crown.

Westerman’s accomplishments continued to rack up. She was crowned Ms. Wheelchair Colorado in 2000 and competed in ballroom competitions in both the United States and Europe.

In 2012, Westerman co-founded Spoke N Motion Dance, a nonprofit integrated dance company.

“Anybody from any level of dance background or any level of physical ability is more than welcome in the company,” she says, beaming. “I don’t believe in auditions. I think auditions are necessary in some instances, but I choose not to use them for Spoke N Motion because I feel like people with disabilities are judged enough.”

Westerman hopes she will inspire others to believe in themselves and realize that having a disability does not have to define you.

“I am so much more than my wheelchair. I used to tell people, ‘See the person first,’ ” she explains. “But if all you see when you look at me is the wheelchair, you have no idea who I am.”