Since childhood, Luca Patuelli has suffered from arthrogryposis, a rare disease. Unable to walk, Luca has very few muscles in his legs. In 2007, Reflet de Société explored his dreams of conquering the world through breakdance, which he practices on his crutches.
Four years later, Luca is consolidating his hopes and dreams.
By Dominic Desmarais
Luca chose Lazylegz as his showbiz stage name. They’re his own lazy legs that follow the cadences imposed upon them by the will of this young man. At 26 years of age, Luca Patuelli adheres to the life principle that he has made for himself: no excuses, no limits. Don’t give up until you’ve tried.
“Everyone can find excuses for not confronting a challenge,” he says. “Not me. I always try. Even if it’s difficult.”
This attitude got him onto a skateboard when he was a teenager, just like many other teens. He also took up ice skating, but as he puts it: “I wasn’t having fun. I fell all the time. But at least I tried.”
Luca did not set limits for himself because he wanted to be like others. That’s because since childhood, he’d never considered himself limited.
“I never saw myself as a disabled person,” he says. “When I was young, I didn’t want to be friends with them. I said to myself that if people see me with them, they’ll associate me with them.”
As a teen, Lazylegz got interested in dance. The spectacular spins of the b-boys attracted him. Contrary to how he’d handled skating, he persevered. He had found his passion, one that came directly from the impossible: jumping high with crutches! The crutches which kept him standing upright became extensions of his own body.
Luca didn’t recognize that he was physically limited. Nothing could stop him. On the dance floor, among the other b-boys, he blew up, he impressed.
It was only when he approached 20 years of age that he took note of his disability: “I accepted my handicap thanks to dance. Let’s just say that it’s really my difference that I accepted. But it’s not like I was freed from some burden, like it affected me at all. Because, deep down, we all have handicaps. We’re all going through the same things.”
International Breakdance Competition
Lazylegz decided he wanted to participate in the world’s biggest breakdance competition at the time: the Freestyle Session in California. He was going to compare himself to the world’s best. He was 20, and the year was 2004. He wasn’t yet the professional dancer who lived off his art that he would become. He had to work to chase his dream: “I payed for my plane ticket by working at the Queue de Castor (Beaver Tails) in the Old Port,” he recalls as his eyes light up, laughing.
The experience reinforced his love of dance – and of travel. “There were many Canadians at the competition. We didn’t know each other, but we formed a team. And we were part of 16 finalists among 70 teams. It was unbelievable!”
Rubbing shoulders with dancers from around the world, Luca adopted the international values of breakdance. The brotherhood at the core of this international community opened up new horizons. He met unforgettable people. He learned to take his disability into account without anguish. He felt accepted and supported by his b-boy brothers and b-girl sisters.
Sharing the Joy of Dancing
Luca became part of a culture with shared experiences and values. He wanted to get more involved, without quite knowing how. He remembered his childhood, with its long hospital stays, during which he only got a few sporadic visitors.
“I’ve had 16 operations in my life,” he recalls. “I spent a lot of time in hospitals. The visits by clowns were moments I’ll remember forever. I told myself that I’d do the same thing for young people.”
He raised the subject with the Shriners Hospital, which specializes in operations on children. He offered his services dancing for patients. “I told myself that if I’d seen that when I was in hospital, it would have helped me get better faster.”
The children were impressed to see a “sick person” twirl on crutches.
As time went on, Luca received more invitations. Whether it was in schools or hospitals, his dance numbers turned into motivational speeches about life and his approach to life.
His passion for dance, which led him to learn the principles of hip-hop culture, gave him the opportunity to change other lives by passing on what he’d learned. He began to make a bit of money thanks to his activities. Communicating his joie-de-vivre through dance and speech was a new challenge for a young man who sought to reach beyond his grasp and journey into the unknown.
His first obstacle was his French. Though he was born in Québec, Luca grew up in the United States, where his father worked. The only French he knew was that he learned around the house in an Anglophone environment. “I never went to French school,” he says. “At the house, my mother spoke to me in Italian, and my father in French. I never learned how to read or write. But I understood. I just had to practice speaking.”
If learning French was difficult, it didn’t discourage him. No excuses, no limits. He knew he would have to be patient to communicate in la langue de Molière. As he puts it: “When I want something, I put all my energy into it. If I say I’ll do it, I’m going to take it all the way.”
While participating in hip-hop events around the world, Lazylegz encountered a few rare specimens like himself. He met other disabled dancers who overcame their physical limits and adapted their moves to their abilities. This young man, increasingly open to the living conditions of young disabled persons, saw a beautiful opportunity to unite these artists in a dance troupe (or, as it’s called in hip-hop, a dance crew).
In 2007 he created ILLabilities, a group of 5 disabled b-boys from Chili, the U.S., Canada and Holland. But the adventure began slowly. The distances between them limited the number of shows they could put on. Organizing shows at a distance would not be easy. And the newly-born dance crew didn’t have the means to fulfil their ambitions. World conquest didn’t happen instantly.
LazyLegz, a Breakdancer/Producer
Luca organized everything. He did what he had to do to set up ILLabilities shows in Canada. He looked for sponsors and rented a vehicle for their travels. He started from scratch and learned the ropes. It was yet another challenge for Luca to take on and overcome. After dance and motivational speaking, he’d become an entrepreneur. “Financially, I took a huge risk,” he says. “On top of that, I organized everything.”
He had hoped to finance an international ILLabilities tour with the proceeds from their Canadian shows. The dream of these dancers was to be able to travel through their art. And travel they did: they gave 25 shows in a month and a half. “Sometimes we did three shows in one day,” he says. “In 45 days we traveled over 10,000 km by car. It was nuts!”
The tour was financially profitable. But Luca was unsatisfied with their performance. “We saw each other 5 times before the tour. It’s tough to prepare a unified show like that. We were doing 5 to 10 minutes of freestyle each. Nothing more.” The team hadn’t yet blended to form a coherent crew. It wasn’t ready to move on to a professional level.
To solve this problem, Luca rented a loft in Montréal where the team could assemble together and practice. For two months, they exchanged ideas. Rather than just perform 5 individual dances, they took advantage of their shared creativity.
“Together, in two months, we put on a 20-minute play. It was the story of our lives. It wasn’t easy to harmonize our individual choreographies. But we did it. The choreography came from each one of us. We had two dancers who had to stay on the floor for their movements. Five different dance styles had to be made to coexist on stage.”
Luca had to get all the dancers to leave their egos aside and focus on the show. “Their dream was to travel,” he points out. “That’s the opportunity I gave them.”
Luca had more to offer than just the discovery of new cultures. He gave them the means to discover more about themselves. He had spent 5 years counselling children, and he ran ILLabilities using this experience. On top of the play, the crew also prepared motivational speeches. It was another challenge for Lazylegz and his protégés.
“The dancers had never spoken in front of people,” he recalls. “I did that to earn a living. They weren’t conscious of the impact they had on young people, and on the disabled. They know that now. They’ve understood that they can carry a message. One about using your weakness as a strength.”
ILLabilities, International Breakdancers
Eventually, Luca would like to see ILLabilities take on new members. “There’s no other crew like ours on earth. There are two disabled dancers in France, one in Washington and another in Sweden. But if we’re more, that means fewer opportunities for each of us.”
ILLabilities isn’t yet established enough to expand. But the dance crew still respects its dream to travel far and wide. They’ve been to Japan, Korea, France, the U.S. and across Canada. Parallel to this, Lazylegz has pursued his personal travel dreams, visiting Europe, Asia and South America. This coming fall he’ll add Russia to his visa collection: “I’ve just signed a contract with a French contemporary dance and hip-hop company. I’ll be on tour with them for a year. With the possibility of participating in events with ILLabilities.”
Luca is hoping that the crew can attend B-Boy Week, held in Holland in the fall. For one week, the 5 dancers will rub shoulders with 10,000 other dancers in a little village near Rotterdam: “It’s become the biggest b-boy event in the world today.”
Walking for the Cause
Luca can be content to meet young people and the disabled through ILLabilities, and take a little time out for himself. But as he gets older he becomes more and more aware of the impact he has on people during his speeches and conferences. He recognizes that others have an impact on him too. Each serves as a source of motivation.
Last year, he walked 1 km for kids afflicted with the same disease he has, arthrogryposis. He walked without crutches or accessories of any kind.
“It took me 55 minutes,” he recalls, “and I fell 55 times! This year, for the same cause, I’m going to try to walk 2 km. I’m training for it. I walk, and I stretch a lot. And I dance. Even if my legs aren’t active. Breakdancing keeps me in shape. It gives me more energy to walk.”
A Tired Body
As a child, Luca didn’t understand the meaning of the word “limit.” He didn’t see his condition as a handicap. Wisdom, life experiences and a body that he sometimes expects too much from have thrown some nuances into how he sees things.
A few years ago, during a big competition, Luca broke a leg. “I saw then that I had limits. Before, I had none. I hadn’t known fear. When I fractured a leg, I started to get scared. I had to fight it, confront it. That helped me to find new dance movements, to better respect my body.”
The incalculable number of hours he’s spent practicing breakdancing have left their mark. He has tendonitis in both arms. And his attitude is softening. “When I was younger, stairs didn’t scare me. These days I prefer to take the elevator so my arms don’t suffer for no reason. Montréal isn’t a very accessible city for the disabled. Nightclubs and most Metro stations are tough to access. But New York and Paris aren’t any better.”
If his physical condition has made him realize how tough it is for a disabled person to integrate into city life, his contact with the disabled has opened his eyes as to how they are marginalized. The young people he meets in special schools or hospitals could never put on a real breakdance performance.
Luca wants to give them this gift: “I’ve organized a competition,” he says. “I’ve invited some of the world’s best dancers. For two months I looked for a place that’s accessible for young disabled persons. And I found nothing. Finally I rented Club Soda, because at least their toilets are on the ground floor. And I’ve rented an access ramp.”