Stroke patients rediscover joy and mobility through tango

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Stroke patients rediscover joy and mobility through tango

Valley Medical Center offers popular weekly dance class
Bobbi Nodell

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.

“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. 

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.
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.”

See short video clip on a tango class at Valley Medical Center.

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 for details.