Experience: I am a one-legged tap dancer

The consultant vowed to save my life and come to my first performance as an amputee

By Evan Ruggiero First Posted in the Guardian Fri 8 Jun 2018 10.00 BST Last modified on Tue 19 Jun 2018 

Evan Ruggiero: ‘With a real foot you’ve got a heel and toe; with a peg, you just have one point.’ Photograph: Daniel Dorsa/The Guardian
Evan Ruggiero: ‘With a real foot you’ve got a heel and toe; with a peg, you just have one point.’ Photograph: Daniel Dorsa/The Guardian

It was during a production in 2009 at university, where I was studying musical theatre, that I started to feel pain in my right leg. One year and nine operations later, when I was 20, I had to have it amputated above the knee. I was really upset: why had I been through so many operations? My consultant explained that they would never have cut my leg off without trying everything else first. The bone cancer was potentially deadly, so this wasn’t just about the loss of a limb. He vowed to save my life and come to my first dance performance as an amputee.

I went home for a week before the amputation. I drive a manual car, so I searched on YouTube and found a double amputee doing just that, with no modifications at all. Seeing what amputees could do got me really excited about becoming one.

Then I remembered Clayton “Peg Leg” Bates – a tapping legend who’d lost his leg in a cotton mill accident when he was 12 and had danced on a peg leg made by his uncle. I’d grown up idolising him. He was totally badass. Before the operation, I posted a video of him dancing on the Ed Sullivan Show, and thought, “In one year, I’ll be doing this.”

I was up and using my first prosthetic leg very quickly. I learned to walk and dress myself fashionably, which is very important to me. I taught myself to drive again and went back to college.

I soon found out the cancer had spread to my lungs. I had two operations to remove tumours and 16 months of chemotherapy. University kept me positive. I’d have chemo during the day, and then sing and act in the evening with a backpack of fluids.

As soon as I finished my treatment in 2011, I said to my prosthetist that it was time to try a peg leg so I could dance. I’d been tapdancing at a high level for over a decade and I was missing it. I went to a rehearsal space alone, put it on and started creating rhythms. I treated it like an instrument, an extension of my body. My muscle memory kicked in; I could still do things with my left foot, and then dropped in the peg leg for extra beats. I used videos to track my progress. My roommate said I should post them online – I did the first one at 4am, and by the time I woke up, it was everywhere.

There is a different technique; with a real foot you’ve got a heel and toe, and you can make different sounds and rhythms. When you have a peg, you just have one point. Now, I dance in a different way. People tell me my shoulders are hunched or my head is over to the side. Well, that’s because I’m dancing on one leg!

In 2010, when I first became one, amputees were just about to break through into the mainstream. There’s been a shift since. Now, it’s, “Hey, I’m an amputee, loud and proud!” It’s important to show the world amputees who are happy and continuing with their lives, although I was self-conscious in the early days, especially when people would draw their kids away from me. I now volunteer in schools and hospitals, dancing and talking about my leg; I do motivational speaking and teach dance classes as well as playing in my band. We’re called Evan Ruggiero and the S’Evan Legs – there are four of us, but only seven legs.

I have nine prosthetics, and typically travel with four – two peg and two walking legs. The peg legs are made of alloy or titanium – a wooden one would probably break.

I didn’t choose any of this, but my career will probably be bigger and better because of my peg leg. I’ve danced at Paralympic events in London, and at the Oscars earlier this year. I’m now auditioning for principal Broadway roles, and was nominated for outstanding actor in a musical at the Drama Desk awards this year. Disabled actors have taken leading and ensemble parts on Broadway. Now, I want to see an amputee in one of those leading roles. Maybe it’ll be me…

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Link to Original Article: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/jun/08/experience-i-am-a-one-legged-tap-dancer