In a previous post, we took a brief look at a few dancers who overcame physical disabilities to keep dancing. Reading about stories like this can be uplifting, so we’ve decided to share more! Here are six more dancers who have very inspiring stories about their journeys. Some of them overcame social challenges and some overcame physical challenges. It is highly encouraged that you learn more about these featured dancers as all of them are proof of the strength and perseverance that many dancers have.
Michaela DePrince is a 23 year-old ballet dancer who was born in Sierra Leone and orphaned during the country’s civil war. While she was living in an orphanage, she was malnourished and mistreated because of her vitiligo – a skin condition which causes patches of skin to lose their pigment. After fleeing to refugee camp when her orphanage was bombed, she was adopted by an American couple at the age of 4 and taken to New Jersey.
Inspired by a picture of a ballerina she saw on a magazine cover, she started taking dance classes. She trained and began to pursue a career as a professional ballet dancer even though she faced some racial discrimination – At age 8; she was told she couldn’t perform as Marie in The Nutcracker because “America was not ready for a black ballerina”. A teacher also told her mother that “black dancers weren’t worth investing in”. Despite the harshness, Michaela continued to flourish and excel in her career. She was awarded a scholarship to study at the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School of Ballet, starred in a dance documentary titled First Position, performed on Dancing with the Stars, and even appeared in Beyoncé’s visual album, Lemonade. In 2013, she joined the junior company of the Dutch National Ballet where she currently dances as a soloist. It is great that Michaela was able to come out of a dangerous environment, but it is even more inspiring that she overcame discrimination and continued to dance even when she was told that she would never succeed.
Alicia Alonso is a well-known ballerina and choreographer from Cuba. She was born in Havana in 1920, began dancing as a child, and had her first performance when she was 10. After getting married and moving to Manhattan, she continued training at the School of American Ballet in 1938. Three years later, she started having problems with her vision and was diagnosed with a detached retina. She went through two surgeries to correct it, but doctors concluded that she had permanently lost all peripheral vision. Even with the bad news; Alicia didn’t let this roadblock stop her from dancing. While she was recovering from her surgeries, she was put on bedrest, but she continued to practice by moving her feet and having her husband show her choreography through hand movements.
Shortly after recovery, Alicia started training again and was almost immediately asked to dance for the American Ballet Theatre to replace an injured prima ballerina. Her performance was critically acclaimed, and she was promoted to principal dancer of the company. Over time she had developed a reputation as a supremely skilled and technical dancer. To compensate for her partial sight and lack of peripheral vision, she trained her partners to be exactly where she needed them to be and even had set designers install special spotlights in different colors to serve as a guide for her. These adjustments worked so well that audiences apparently were never aware of her handicap. Eager to develop ballet in Cuba and showcase Cuban dancers, she eventually went on to start her own company, the Cuban National Ballet, which still runs today. She even continued to dance well into her 70s and still remains the company’s Artistic Director to this day. Alicia’s story is encouraging because her passion for dance outweighed her vision problems and she ended up being one of the best dancers and creators of her time.
David Toole is a 52 year old dancer from England who was born with a condition called Sacral Agenesis, which means that his spine didn’t develop properly in the womb. When he was born, his legs weren’t functional, and at 18 months he had his legs amputated. He first got a taste for performing while he was doing a play in school, but he didn’t think about being on the stage again until he was an adult. He was working at a post office when an old teacher of his gave him a leaflet for a workshop. A new company was hosting a workshop for disabled and non-disabled performers. David originally wasn’t interested in going to the event, but a good friend convinced him to go. After he completed the workshop and a performance at the end of the week, he realized that dancing is what he was meant to do.
He was asked to join the company that hosted the workshop, Candoco, so he left his job at the post office, started training, and has been dancing with Candoco for the past 25 years. He had discovered his purpose in life, and the directors recognized that he had something unique to offer. By the 1990s, his career as a dancer had taken off – he toured all over with Candoco, performed for and met Princess Diana, performed alongside Sir Ian McKellen, and has done various other shows. He even appeared in a few films and the HBO series, Rome. He also performed at the 2012 opening ceremony of the Paralympic Games. Even though David does not look like a “typical dancer” he has many strengths and characteristics that make him a very special artist.
George Williams is another English dancer who found dance through a workshop. The 27 year-old has an unspecified learning disorder that makes communication difficult – he has trouble reading, writing, telling the time, and articulating his thoughts, but he always enjoyed dancing when he was in school. When a performance development company, TIN Arts, held auditions for a new course aimed at young dancers with learning disabilities, they saw that George had something special and that he needed to be a dancer. It was clear that he communicated through dancing.
Others have stated that George understands dance as if it’s his “natural language”. He dances eloquently and confidently, and he is always in sync with his fellow dancers. George says his favorite moves are “jumps, rolls, and handstands” and he “gets excited to dance for people.” Shortly after the workshop, he started attending dance classes with TIN Arts, and in 2015 he applied to join the National Youth Dance Company and was accepted, becoming the first dancer with a severe learning disability to join the company. When he left NYDC, TIN Arts helped him to develop his own solo show. He and TIN Arts director, Tess Chaytor, created a show called WIRED, which George performed at various festivals and theatres. He is continuing to perform his show throughout England this year. George’s story shows how dance can be a creative outlet for those who struggle to communicate. It also shows how not even mental and learning disabilities can keep people from dancing if they really love it.
Eileen Kramer may just be the oldest active dancer in the world. This Australian dancer/choreographer is 103 years-old! She was born in Sydney in 1914 and was an original member of Australia’s first modern dance company, Bodenwieser Ballet, which she joined at the age of 24. She has lived and danced in many places including India, Paris, London, and New York throughout her dance career. For a time, she stopped dancing for 20 years to take care for her ailing husband, but she returned to Sydney at age 99 to start again. She was at risk for homelessness, but the Arts Health Institute made her its ambassador and financially supported her to make more work.
Eileen still dances today and most recently choreographed and performed in a production titled, A Buddha’s Wife. Although she cannot dance much with her legs, she uses her upper body to express herself. She has been refining her technique of dancing while sitting down by using expressive arm movements and gestures. She isn’t able to do leaps and turns anymore, but observers say she dances with the “true essence” of what dance is. Eileen says, “Dance is a particularly youthful activity to most people, and I think in Australia we expect our dancers to retire way too soon. Thankfully as we age, there are more and more artists who continue to work, and I think it’s vital we celebrate that.” Being 103, her secrets to living a long, rich life are “good health, good luck, learning about the world, and always looking forward to new projects.” Through her passion, Eileen shows the world that you keep dancing, no matter what age you are.
Maggie was 23 years-old and a member of the Joffrey Concert Group in New York City when she was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer in 2014. There was a tumor growing very quickly and it had already spread to her bones and lymph nodes. She moved back home to Maryland to begin treatment and she had a double mastectomy that same year. Six days after surgery, she was back in the dance studio to regain her strength and stamina. Even with the mastectomy, she has to remain on chemotherapy medications for the rest of her life to keep the cancer cells dormant. The chemotherapy treatment sometimes makes her fatigued, but she continues to push through and train. Her doctors always encouraged her to keep dancing during treatment to ease side effects and keep her spirits up. Dance allowed her to “forget about having cancer and just do what she loves.”
Maggie started the blog, “Bald Ballerina” to write about her treatment journey. Part of the blog’s role is to raise funds to cover her ever-growing medical costs, but her main goal is to raise awareness about breast cancer. Along with continuing to take classes and perform when she’s able, she works with Starbound National Talent Competition, sharing her story and traveling the country to teach ballet master classes. She also produces fundraising concerts, No One Can Survive Alone, which raises awareness and funds for her medical expenses. Her motivation continues through her dedication to dance – creating, promoting, and performing.
Happy Dancing! ^_^