WEST ST. PAUL, MINN. -- As Nancy Raddatz sees it, a wheelchair is no excuse to keep from tap-dancing. Nor should blindness throw a damper on a romantic pas de deux.

So the longtime dance teacher blew away 30 years of dust and spent more than $80,000 of her own money to convert a sheet metal firm into the Uniquely Abled Dance Center, a ground-floor studio exclusively for the disabled.

The center, which will offer free lessons, took seven years to materialize and opened last month. About 70 students make up its first class.

"It's quite an undertaking," said Raddatz, who has danced for 51 of her 53 years and taught jazz, tap, ballet and ballroom dancing for 41 of them.

She's no newcomer to teaching the disabled, with whom she says she can empathize after being stricken with polio as a child. Dozens of children and adults with vision, hearing and mobility impairments have already learned the love of dancing through Raddatz's commercial school.

"You look at their disability, but technically you look at their ability," she said. "And that's what you work with."

Her dream of creating a studio exclusively for the disabled began to take shape when her uncle moved his ground-floor sheet metal business out of the building that housed her original studio upstairs.

She bought the building, which left her with a ground floor full of shelves, dust and concrete. But she needed thousands of dollars more to transform the space into a dance studio. Sponsors at first were hard to come by.

"One group I wrote to said their funds only go to people who appreciate the arts," she said. "As if, when you're blind or deaf, you can't appreciate such things."

The spark finally came in 1988, when nearby Henry Sibley High School raised $3,000.

As word spread, local businesses and service organizations began chipping in time and materials. Her students and their families formed an army of volunteers.

Raddatz believes she's the first to open a free dance center exclusively for the disabled, and she hopes the idea catches on.

"If I start, maybe this will be incentive for other people to do the same thing," she said. "And if we make videotapes of the experience, this could be something that just sort of spokes out and is made available in other areas.

"Dancing is a way of expressing yourself, and it's therapeutic. When children and adults come in here, it's a happy experience. So you do see them blossoming."

As a prime example, she points to 11-year-old Jennifer Jackson, a Down syndrome child who has taken jazz and tap lessons at her original studio for three years.

"It's helped her tremendously in her coordination," said Jennifer's mother, Joellyn. "The dance class also gives her something she can accomplish and be proud of."