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You Don't Need Legs to Be a Great Dancer

Breakdancing - or any kind of dancing for that matter - is a challenge for most of us.

But "b-boy" Luca "Lazylegz" Patuelli makes spinning his entire body on one hand look easy, despite the fact that the 31-year-old has lived his entire life with arthrogryposis.

"Basically it’s a neuromuscular disorder. It affects the bones and the joints in your body," he said, baseball cap turned to one side. "For me, it primarily affects me in my legs, so I have very little muscles in my legs, but it also affects me in my shoulders, so I’m limited in the level of how I can raise my hands."

But that hasn’t slowed him down. Patuelli incorporates his crutches into his breakdancing, using them as equal parts propulsion and prop.

"I really try to emphasize the idea of crew life, about working together, so work with what you have and be able to take advantage of the littlest movements, because it’s the littlest movements that make the biggest difference in a performance," he said.

Patuelli, who’s performed on the TV show https://youtu.be/zmUC6G32W40" target="_blank">"America’s Got Talent" and in the https://youtu.be/czf3FImSBF4" target="_blank">2010 Paralympics Opening Ceremonies, was one of a group of "mixed ability" - disabled and able-bodied - dancers from around the world who came to Tampa for the recent event, “A New Definition of Dance.”

University of South Florida dance instructor Merry Lynn Morris helped organize the showcase. She said there were three purposes.

"One purpose was educational; really have our students experience dance in a very different way and open their eyes in terms of what disability is and what disability, that it is not so limiting as most people consider it to be," she said.

"The other goal was to actually bring these artists into intersection into each other," Morris added. "Because, a lot of times, most of these artists don’t know each other at all, and it’s the first time bringing them together to experience each other’s teaching methods and that kind of thing."

Eight dancers, from a variety of countries and with a variety of abilities and backgrounds visited students at USF and at Hillsborough County Public schools. They also took part in a sold-out gala performance at the university.

Credit Jim Lennon
World and European wheelchair ballroom dancing champions Hanna Harchakova and Ihar Kisialiou perform at a sold-out gala at USF.

In addition to Canadian breakdancer Patuelli, there were world/European wheelchair ballroom dancing champions https://youtu.be/vx0KYZPgfN4" target="_blank">Hanna Harchakova and Ihar Kisialiou (Harchakova is in a wheelchair, Kisialiou is able-bodied), classical Chinese dancer Liu Yan, West African dancer-musician Sidiki Conde and American modern dancers Sonsheree Giles, https://youtu.be/CZdHJf3DMig" target="_blank">Frank G. Hull and Marcie Ryan.

The third purpose was to have the group serve as test pilots for the Rolling Dance/Mobility Chair, a power wheelchair that Morris has invented that allows people with disabilities to dance.

"So they’re all testing it, giving me feedback, and we’re exploring through movement and that’s going to help the design process ultimately, to hopefully develop a very robust and quality device," Morris said.

The four-day event was also presented by VSA Florida, which is housed in the USF College of Education and is part of a Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts-sponsored international effort to make the arts accessible to people with disabilities.

"One of the great things about the dance community is they’re very welcoming," VSA Florida Executive Director Jennifer Sabo said. "Dancers don’t necessarily see you’re a dancer with a disability or you’re a dancer who does not have a disability, they see you’re a dancer, and how are we going to participate together?"

Marcie Ryan was born with a spinal cord injury and has been in a wheelchair since the age of 25. In addition to teaching a modern dance class to USF students with partner Frank G. Hull, she performed alongside students in Conde’s African dance class.

"I hope they get out of it that people with differing bodies and differing levels of physical or mental or social abilities can still experience their bodies; the joy of movement," Ryan said. "Honestly, there’s no need for pity, condescension, looking down on people or thinking ‘Oh, how sad, we have to help them.’ Just let them shine."

And that’s not the only lesson the USF students learned. At one point in Patuelli’s class, they had to use crutches, wheelchairs and blindfolds to choreograph their own dance performances.

Credit Tom Kramer
USF Dance Students learn how to dance using wheelchairs and crutches in a class during "A New Definition of Dance."

Sophomore Lital Gelman said dancing without using her feet made for an eye-opening experience.

"When I got the chance to sit in the chair and see what it’s like, it was like, okay I’m really not as limited as it seems," Gelman said. "You can make anything work, your body moves, little muscles move, everything moves, you can always figure out how to make things work, so it was really awesome to discover that for myself rather than just trying to observe it."

"It was just amazing to actually be there, face-to-face, physically, mentally and just be with all of the individuals who have disabilities and just be able to watch and understand how they made the class work for them, so that was really awesome," she added.

A second “New Definition of Dance” is already in the works for next year.

Mark Schreiner is the assistant news director and intern coordinator for WUSF News.
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