Many of you know that I have a special interest in working with people who live with physical disabilities. Before I gave up martial arts for dance, I had a lot of friends who were instrumental in starting the country’s first Center for Independent Living, in Berkeley, California. I was asked to teach a self defense class there, and that was the beginning of a rewarding if low paying career, teaching in various places including UC Berkeley and Easter Seals workshops. When I left martial arts, I passed on the skills by teaching a series of workshops for martial artists, teaching others to do what I had been doing. Now I really enjoy the occasions when I have the opportunity to teach dance to physically challenged people.
Over the years, history has given us remarkable examples of people who have been able to become outstanding dancers without the advantage of all their body parts intact. This is the first in a series of blogs about some of these inspirational dancers.
Clayton (Peg Leg) Bates, perhaps the most famous (but not the only) one-legged tap dancer lost his leg at age 12 in a cottonseed-gin mill accident. He had been dancing for since age 5, and continued to do so after the accident. He began dancing again after his uncle whittled him a wooden leg. ”See, I did not realize the importance of losing a leg,” he recalled. ”I thought it was just like stubbing my toe and knocking off a toenail that was going to grow back.”
He went on to become one of the most popular tap dancers in the nation, as much admired by his fellow dancers as by his audiences. He performed from the 1920’s through 1989 in a career that included vaudeville and clubs, stage musicals, film and television.
”Well, I’m into rhythm and I’m into novelty,” he said in an interview with LA tap dancer Rusty Frank. ”I’m into doing things that it looks almost impossible to do.” One reason he had mastered so many styles, he said, was to surpass two-legged dancers, adding that he often did.
Over the course of his long life, he performed all over the world and danced with most of the top big bands. In the 1950’s, he performed on ”The Ed Sullivan Show” 21 times, more than any other tap dancer.
Here is an excellent illustration of his overwhelming appeal.
By LaurieAnn Lepoff
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