Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Dancing Gabe, the man

Insight into the person behind the moves and ever-present smile

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YOU just knew it was going to happen.

Last month an outpouring of generosity from Free Press readers allowed Dancing Gabe and his brother Rick Langlois to be in Toronto to cheer on the Bombers in the Grey Cup.

But, on a weekend when Gabe was constantly being stopped to have his photo taken by yet more Bomber fans, a Saskatchewan supporter began to taunt Winnipeg's most celebrated cheerleader.

"Dancing Gabe," the Roughrider fan bellowed. "What kind of name is Dancing Gabe?"

Rick described what the Rider fan looked like.

"He was a big, huge guy and he'd been drinking."

"I just said, 'Hey be careful what you say, buddy. You don't know him.'

"And then he called him a retard."

It didn't end there, though...

* z People have asked me who Dancing Gabe is.

What makes him dance?

Like most people, I only knew Gabe from watching his pompom-prancing performances at Jets and Bomber and Goldeyes games. And occasionally seeing him walk away alone towards a bus stop.

Gabe Langlois' true identity is more complicated, of course.

So when they returned from the Grey Cup I sat down alone with Rick Langlois and asked the question of who Gabe is in a more personal way.

"What was it like growing up with Gabe?"

Rick responded reflexively.

"Gabe didn't talk until he was 10," Rick said.

Yet, according to Rick and other members of the family, Gabe is almost a Rainman-like figure when it comes to sports knowledge.

He also is a gifted speller, which means the family with which he lives -- his long-widowed mother Angela, sister Claudette and her nine-year-old son Ryan -- never have to open a dictionary.

And, despite his awkward dancing style, he's an athlete.

For years, Gabe ran the full Manitoba Marathon.

But it took him so long that Claudette finally suggested he scale it back to a more efficient half marathon.

Gabe is the kind of guy who buys everyone in the family a Christmas gift and even goes around dropping off Christmas cards to attractive young newspaper reporters he has never met and sportswriters he has.

All of this on his meager income.

He has a disability pension that pays him about $325 a month, and he works part-time at the St. Vital Y where he earns $80 a week.

Mind you, all he really cares to buy is his monthly bus pass.

You see, Gabe's main currency in life is his cheerful nature.

Money doesn't count much for Gabe.

Never has.

The Langlois clan were a working poor family from St. Vital, where the father, Louis, had a sandblasting and painting business and the mother, Angela, toiled in a sewing factory.

When she wasn't having babies.

She gave birth to six children, virtually one year after another.

Gabe was the third.

But it wasn't long after he was born on Jan. 29, 1963 that his mother knew that little Gabe wasn't like the first two, Mike and Rick.

"He would sleep and eat and that was about it," she recalled.

Quite the opposite of the "terror" Gabe became around the house once he began walking and taking.

Back then, he was more into demolition than dancing.

"Tell me about when I was a terror," Gabe likes to ask his mother now.

Rick, who's a year older, says Gabe's condition was never really diagnosed, but his mother talks about him being autistic.

By the time Gabe was three, there were five children aged six and under in the house. And Angela was hospitalized for three weeks with pneumonia.

Her doctor arranged for Gabe's placement in St. Amant Centre, an institution usually reserved for severely mentally handicapped children.

But St. Amant couldn't handle the little terror either.

At six he was placed in the Manitoba School in Portage la Prairie, where the family tried to visit him regularly. But that home for the mentally handicapped wasn't a fit either.

And one winter day, when he was 10, Gabe went missing on an outing to the Portage train station. It was nearly midnight before the youngster was located following the train tracks home, presumably.

"He was frozen," his mother said. "They said he wouldn't have lasted much longer."

Gabe spent the next month in hospital.

Angela Langlois insisted on taking her son home after that.

Subsequently, though, she was persuaded by a nun she knew to enroll him at Notre Dame de Lourdes, where a nearby farm family had agreed to foster him.

It was a turning point for Gabe.

The nun, Sister Georgette Pantel, taught him reading, writing and arithmetic. And the school library, and books in them, became Gabe's sanctuary.

Now he was 12 and ready to rejoin the family forever.

"I thought I could take him home," Angela said. "His terror days were finished."

Back in Winnipeg, a public school in Norwood refused to take him.

But the parochial school Christ the King happily, even gratefully, embraced Gabe as a gift to the school.

Angela Langlois remembers her children coming home and telling her what the principal had announced to the other students before Gabe arrived.

"She said they all had to help him out if he didn't know something. She told them how blessed they were to have Gabe."

Eventually he went on to a special program at Glenlawn Collegiate.

His reception at the high school was less welcoming, at least at times.

At Glenlawn, big brothers Mike and Rick were around to look after him, but there was one time when they noticed that Gabe wasn't his cheerful self.

When they asked him what was wrong, Gabe began crying.

One of the other students had been stealing Gabe's lunch money for weeks. Mike and Rick took care of the thief and the recovery of the lunch money.

Gabe, the kid who didn't talk for 10 years, who endured so much in institutions in which he didn't belong, graduated from Glenlawn.

He took Rick as his grad date.

Gabe danced all night with every girl who would join him.

It was the first time Rick had seen Gabe dance.

Little did Rick know where it would take both Gabe, and him.

* * *

In Toronto on Grey Cup weekend, the word "retard" was still ringing in Rick's ears.

Seething with anger, Rick felt as if he was about to do something almost as stupid with his fists as the hulking, drunken Saskatchewan fan had done with his mouth.

But Gabe stopped him.

"Gabe said, 'Leave him alone Rick. Leave him alone. Don't worry. It doesn't bother me.'"

Rick froze momentarily.

"That was the first time I'd heard Gabe actually say something like that," Rick said.

As it turned out, Rick and Gabe didn't need to get involved.

"A couple of young Bomber fans grabbed the guy," Rick recalled. "And one guy said to me, 'Keep going, we'll explain this.'"

The two brothers were halfway up an escalator when Rick looked back. The Bomber fans were still talking to the Saskatchewan fan.

Whose head was hanging in shame.

"There are people out there who don't have a clue," Rick told me.

In any event, what mattered most to Rick that Grey Cup weekend was the look in Gabe's eyes.

"It was the greatest thing that ever happened to him."

Perhaps that's because, in terms of the moment, it was like the wedding Gabe may never have, and the first-born he will never hold.

And in a way, the trip to the Winnipeg-Saskatchewan Grey Cup that Free Press readers and WestJet and The Fairmont gave Gabe was our Christmas gift to him.

For his being the gift he is to Winnipeg, all year long.

As for what makes Dancing Gabe Dance, that's easy.

Joy, of course.

He dances for joy.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 22, 2007 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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