Since childhood, Café Graffiti regular Luca Patuelli, 29, has suffered from a rare disease: arthrogyrposia. Incapable of walking, he has very few muscles in his legs. His dream: to be a dancer. And he has done it.
Using his crutches, under the stage name Lazylegz he has conquered the world of entertainment. Appearing on the hit Ellen talk show, traveling the globe, he has wowed the planet with his incredible dance stylings, his energy – and most importantly, his hunger to overcome his own personal obstacles and move to the rhythm, wheeling and soaring on crutches and grit.
Dominic Desmarais Files: Breakdancing
He’s done it through hard work and perseverance. He never uses his legs as an excuse. “Everyone can find reasons to not try something,” he says. “Not me. I always try. Even if it’s difficult.”
As a kid, this never-say-die attitude drove Luca to try skateboarding and ice skating. “I didn’t do it for fun,” he says. “I fell all the time. But at least, I tried.” More than anything, he wanted to feel just like any other teenager. “I never saw myself as handicapped. When I was young, I didn’t want disabled friends. I thought that if people saw me with them, they’d think I was one of them.”
Love of Dance
Then he fell in love with dance. He gave up skating to focus on his dancing. The spectacular moves and twirls of b-boys inspired him. The crutches he needed just to stand up became extensions of his arms, allowing him to execute high-voltage flips and pirouettes that left other b-boys in the dust.
Approaching age 20, Luca finally came to terms with his disability: “I accepted my handicap thanks to dance. Let’s just say I accepted that I was different. But it wasn’t like I felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. Because deep down, we all have a disability. We’re all the same.”
In 2004, at age 20 Lazylegz decided to compete in the world’s foremost breakdance contest: the Freestyle Session in California. He wasn’t yet a professional dancer. “To pay for my plane ticket I worked at the ‘Queue de Castor’ in the Quebec City’s Old Port,” he laughs, a mischievous twinkle in his eye. “There were a lot of Canadians competing there. We hadn’t met before, but we became a team. We ended up one of 16 finalists among 70 teams. It was incredible!”
His California experience only deepened his desire to dance and to travel. Luca made lifelong friends. He adopted the values of the international breakdance community. The feeling of goodwill and unity they shared expanded his horizons.
It all led Luca to flashback to his days as a child languishing in hospitals. He’s not sure how it happened: but suddenly, he found himself reliving the long years of pain in hospital beds. Visitors were few and far between. “I’ve had 16 operations,” he says. “I spent a lot of time in hospitals. Sometimes clowns would come to the ward to entertain us kids. Those are moments I’ll remember my whole life. I said to myself then and there that one day I’d do the same for kids when I got older.”
Luca approached Montreal’s Shriners Hospital, which specializes in child surgery patients. He asked if he could dance for their young patients. “I told myself that if I’d had someone like that come to visit me when I was young, I would have healed faster.” The kids at Shriners were delighted and surprised to see a “sickie” like themselves leap and flip on crutches.
Word of his hospital volunteerism spread, and Luca slowly received more invitations. Schools, hospitals, and motivational conferences invited Lazylegz to perform in front of larger and larger audiences. His talent gave him the opportunity to change lives.
At these events, he opened up about hip-hop values and how they had changed him. He communicated his love of dance through movement and speech, which was a new challenge: He’d never spoken before in public. He began to make some money from his gifts.
Born in Quebec, Luca grew up in the United States. At home some French was spoken, but he went to school in English. Luca did not know the French language well at all when he began his speaking engagements in Quebec. For Luca, this was just one more obstacle to overcome. “It just took practice,” he says. “But when I want something I put all my energy into it. If I say I’ll do something I go all the way.”
Traveling the globe, he met other disabled dancers, rare creatures he could identify with. They too saw no limits to what they could do on stage. Luca got the idea to assemble the best of them into an elite dance troupe. In 2007, he formed ILL-Abilities, 5 disabled b-boys. The troupe was truly international: countries represented included Chili, the U.S., Canada and Holland. They started slowly. Living far apart, it was difficult to set up shows and tours. And the funding to fuel their dreams wasn’t there at first. They did not conquer the world overnight.
Luca organized everything. He went the extra mile to set up shows in Canada; looked for sponsors; and rented a van for their Canadian tour. The dancer became an entrepreneur. “It was a big risk financially,” he says.
After their Canadian tour, they tried to raise the money to take their show around the world. Their dream was to make it big internationally. They gave 25 shows in a month and a half. “Sometimes we did three shows in one day,” he recalls. “In 45 days we drove more than 10,000 kilometers (4,500 miles). It was nuts!”
The profits were good, but Luca was not satisfied with their performance. “We only practiced together 5 times before our first show. It’s tough to put together a common performance piece that way. Each of us did 5 to 10 minutes of solo freestyle. We didn’t dance together.”
They hadn’t yet formed a real dance team when Luca rented a loft in Montreal. For 2 months, the 5 members brainstormed and practiced. Everyone offered ideas. They blended their creative talents.
A United Team
“Together,” Luca remembers, “in 2 months we came up with a 20-minute theatre piece. It was the story of our lives. We used our disabilities and our dancing to tell our story. It wasn’t obvious how we were going to harmonize our choreography. But we did it. Each of our styles is very different. Two of us have to remain on the floor to dance. All 5 styles have to coexist in one routine.”
Differences emerged, but Luca kept reminding everyone of their ultimate goal: “Everyone’s dream was to travel. I gave them that opportunity.”
More than learning about other cultures, Luca also gave troupe members the chance to learn more about themselves. Luca had by now worked with kids for 5 years. He used his experiences to mold ILL-Abilities into a force for change. Their show became part dance spectacular, part motivational conference. This presented another challenge: “These dancers had never spoken in public,” he remembers. “I earned a living that way. They weren’t aware of the impact their disabilities had on others. Now they know. They understand that they can send a positive message. They can turn their disadvantage into an advantage.”
ILL-Abilities has traveled through Asia, Europe and North America. They have appeared on numerous TV shows. They have danced at the world’s biggest hip-hop festivals. The older Luca gets, the more he has become aware of his impact on others – and how the people he has met along the way have impacted him. He has raised funds for kids afflicted with his own disease, arthrogyrposia.
Luca has also learned one very important thing: he is not immortal. A few years ago, he broke his leg. “Before that I didn’t think I had any limits. I didn’t know fear. When I fractured my leg, I started to be afraid. I had to confront my fear. It motivated me to find new dance moves. Now I respect my own body more.”
The countless hours Luca has spent practicing his art have taken their toll. He has tendonitis in both arms. He has slowed down: “When I was younger, stairs didn’t worry me. Now I’d rather take the elevator, so I don’t make my arms suffer for nothing. Montreal isn’t an easy city for a disabled person to live in. It’s a challenge. Nightclubs and most subway stations are difficult to access. But New York and Paris are no better.” His efforts to find an accessible location where he can set up a studio for disabled dancers have proved challenging.
Contact with other disabled persons has opened his eyes. And Lazylegz has opened the world’s eyes to the iron will of disabled persons who strive to achieve their goals.