Take Five: Tapper with one leg carries on tradition of 'Peg Leg' Bates
Tap dancer Evan Ruggiero was 16 and healthy when he first saw video of legendary one-legged tapper “Peg Leg” Bates. Bates, who lost his left leg in a cotton-seed gin mill at the age of 12, grew up to perform all over the country and on the Ed Sullivan show.
“I thought, ‘That’s so cool. He’s doing better than some of us with two legs,’” Ruggiero said.
Three years after that, Ruggiero was diagnosed with bone cancer in his right leg. Many surgeries later, the cancer returned and doctors had to amputate. But two days after receiving his prosthesis -- his own “peg leg” -- Ruggiero posted a YouTube video of himself tapping again for the first time in two years.
Beacon: As a dancer of 15 years, how did you deal with the news that you would lose the leg?
Evan Ruggiero: The head doctor came in and told me there were no other options left and they would have to amputate my leg above the knee. It was a four-hour conversation, and the first two hours were me screaming and crying about why this had to happen and what could have prevented it, and knowing the other six to seven months of surgeries were basically trashed.
I lost bones in my legs and pieces of tissue. Now, the amount of pain I went through really didn’t mean a lot. It was a tough seven months I had to put myself through to find out that, in the end, that my leg was going to be amputated.
Luckily, the following two hours focused on the positives of being an amputee and how prosthetics have come such a long way due to the Gulf War and the war in Afghanistan. It’s a very very advanced field nowadays.
Do you always wear the “peg leg?”
Ruggiero: The “peg leg” is best for tapping and it keeps with the tradition of “Peg Leg” Bates. But it isn’t my only leg. I also have a very advanced microprocessor sea leg.
It can read my natural gait and take readings every time I walk. It’s pretty cool; it’s my everyday walking leg, and I will definitely be out in St. Louis on this one.
Will you one day be able to get a more advanced prosthesis for tapping that has a moveable knee?
Ruggiero: I talk about it. But I love being able to have the peg: it’s light and easy to maneuver and work with. It has a very different sound than anything else or even two tap shoes. You get this hollow bass drum sound from it.
I am a percussionist. I play the drums, also piano and guitar. I really like to incorporate a lot of drumming and percussion instruments into my tapping. When I’m with others, I know I can’t do every single step the way someone else is, so I’ll have to modify the sound, and sometimes I’ll add upbeats and downbeats. It really adds a lot of variety to the sound when I’m dancing with somebody with two feet.
Once you were known as a really good dancer, now you’re the one-legged tapper. Does that ever get old?
St. Louis Tap Festival
Where: Classes/workshops at Sheraton Clayton Plaza Hotel, “All That Tap” at Touhill Performing Arts Center, UMSL campus
When: 8 a.m.-7:45 p.m., July 23-27 Classes/workshops; 7 p.m. Saturday, July 28 “All That Tap”
How much: Class prices vary; “All That Tap” $35
Ruggiero: It has become my new identity. I go around town sporting shorts and everyone can see my prosthetic leg. I do a lot of work for Relay for Life and cancer fundraising, giving back to my community for all they did for me when I was going through my diagnosis and chemotherapy and everything.
It kind of has become a thing for me to be known as the one-legged tap dancer or amputee tap dancer, so right now I’m definitely going with it. Being a musician and a dancer is something that alway ran through me, and I’m glad to get back to it, to make myself happy and to see my parents really happy.
Are you in remission?
Ruggiero: What my doctors say to me is that. with bone cancer, you’re never really in remission. In some cases like mine, it’s gone and it does come back. It was scary.
I was diagnosed with cancer in October 2009 and they declared me cancer free in November 2009, and I went through all the surgeries. Then I was told I had cancer again in May 2010. Then it metastasized in my lungs and I had two lung surgeries in October 2010 and December 2010 and they pulled out eight tumors.
Now, I live my life thinking it could come come back. So I live my life to be happy and go after everything I can, and tackle as many challenges as I can.