Amy Purdy talks samba before dancing solo at the Rio 2016 Paralympics opening ceremony Sept. 7 (photos, video)
Night of Inspiration with Amy Purdy
What: A free dance lesson fundraiser with local Paralympian Amy Purdy and Summit Swing to benefit Adaptive Action Sports, Purdy’s Copper-based nonprofit to support athletes with disabilities
When: Tuesday, Aug. 16 from 6-9 p.m. (doors at 5 p.m.)
Where: Dillon Amphitheater, W Lodgepole Street in Dillon
The night includes a DJ for the swing lesson, drinks, silent auction and Purdy’s first local book signing since the release of her biography, “On My Own Two Feet: The Journey from Losing My Legs to Learning the Dance of Life.” Purdy and athletes from Adaptive Action Athletes will also give inspirational speeches during the event. Auction items include tickets to “Dancing with the Stars” in Los Angeles, complimentary workouts at Crossfit Low Oxygen in Frisco, gift certificates and more.
Amy Purdy just couldn’t get the touch dialed in on her right running blade.
“The hips follow the knee follows the foot,” the Paralympic snowboarder said to herself as she stepped from side to side, right to left, bouncing lightly on the prosthetics made for sprinters. “How can I dance if I feel off-balance on that foot?”
She sits down with a sigh and starts tweaking a set of screws on the prosthetic. The blades look more like two burly shepherd’s staffs, turned upside down to spring like a human calf. That right one has been giving her trouble, and, with only a week left before she flies to Rio de Janeiro for the Paralympics opening ceremony, she doesn’t have time for a wobbly prosthetic.
By now, Purdy is known as much for dancing as she is for snowboarding. Not long after she won a Paralympic bronze medal in 2014 for boardercross— a rough-and-tumble event with four riders on a course through jumps, berms and gates — she made her debut on ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars,” where she became the first double amputee to compete.
Not only did Purdy compete — she took second overall behind Olympic medalist Meryl Davis. Purdy can dance just as well with prosthetics as most people do with feet, and it’s why she’s been invited to perform, solo, for four minutes at the opening ceremony on Sept. 7.
“I do my best to shut out the unnecessary chatter in my brain: how stressful this is, how scary this is, how many people are watching,” Purdy told me over the phone a few days before dance practice at the Silverthorne rec center with her local coach, Jessica Bellflower “It’s the purpose, and that purpose is to show the possibilities with these legs. That’s really what it’s all about. That’s not to say it’s not scary.”
Foot issues or no, Purdy flies to Rio de Janeiro later this week for in-person rehearsals. In the meantime, she teams with local dance group Summit Swing for free dance lessons and a silent auction fundraiser at the Dillon Amphitheater on Aug. 16. Dubbed “Night of Inspiration,” the event supports Adaptive Action Sports, the nonprofit she runs out of Copper Mountain with her husband, Daniel Gale.
Before her big performance, Purdy and Bellflower spoke with the Summit Daily sports desk about the opening ceremony routine, the swing-dancing fundraiser, and what it’s like to choreograph — and then perform — a contemporary samba with running blades.
Summit Daily News: You two just returned from Rio a few weeks ago. What were you doing down there?
Amy Purdy: To choreograph this dance for the opening ceremony at the Paralympic Games. We were working with an incredible choreographer, Cassie (Abranches), and she came out in March to see if I was a good fit for the performance the producers wanted for the opening ceremony. I realized that if I’m going to do this, I’m going to need help. I reached out to Jessica, who’s in Summit, and she helped choreograph my wedding dance I did with my husband last year. He found her because he wanted some dance lessons before our wedding and she was willing to help with that first dance.
SDN: What kind of dance are you doing for the opening ceremony?
AP: It’s pretty spectacular, I’ll say. It’s a contemporary dance, and it’s pretty scary for me because it’s really outside of my comfort zone. I did “Dancing with the Stars,” but I always had a partner, and if you forget the dance for a split second they can pick you back up. They’re also great for balance.
They were also very short dances — like a minute and a half — and this one is about four minutes long. It’s very long, very complicated, and I actually switch legs a few times during the dance. It’s built into the choreography.
SDN: What type of feet are you using?
AP: I’m in running blades, which aren’t made for dancing, and also feet that are made for swimming. There really aren’t any feet made for dancing, but if I can pull it off it will be a very powerful performance. They’ve composed music for it — this theatrical, powerful music that is just perfect for an opening ceremony. They put so much time into creating new music for this dance, and, even though I can’t talk about all the details, it’s about the relationship between the human spirit — the human body — and technology. That’s what the Paralympics is all about: how technology and the human spirit connect.
SDN: How does a dance performance compare to Olympic competition? You’re no stranger to the spotlight on the snow, but this is your first solo dance performance.
AP: It’s very similar. When you’re at the Paralympics, you know that this is your one shot. Everything leads up to that one moment. The world is watching, and that was the most pressure I’d ever been in.
Then I went to “Dancing with the Stars” and it was like the Paralympics every week. You have to nail a single minute of performance every week. The pressure is huge, but, like everything else I’ve done, you can’t focus on everyone else. You have to shut off everything else, and if you make a mistake you pull yourself together. I do my best to shut out the unnecessary chatter in my brain: how stressful this is, how scary this is, how many people are watching. It’s the purpose, and that purpose is to show what the possibilities can be with these legs. That’s really what it’s all about.
That’s not to say it’s not scary…
SDN: Did you ever think you’d have the chance to dance at an opening ceremony?
AP: No, not once. We had up to 18 million people watching “Dancing with the Stars,” but this is an international stage. Maybe not every country is tuning in, but just about the whole world is tuning in. It takes what I’ve done in the past and takes it to a whole new level. It’s a solo dance, again, and this I my opportunity to show people that, yes, I can do this on my own for a solid four minutes. It’s a challenge, but it’s nothing I’m not used to.
SDN: What was the energy like when you two were in Rio? I’ve never been to an Olympic city, summer or winter, during the buildup to the games.
AP: You know, it was really the calm before the storm. We were there a week before the Games began, so when we arrived it seemed really mellow. As the week went on we saw the military and the security get into place, so it was interesting to see that shift. In the beginning it felt so relaxed compared to Sochi — the military force there was so present when I was competing. In Rio, we were in and out of the stadium so easily. I was telling Jess it was strange to have so little security, but I put my foot in my mouth right before we left and security came out of nowhere. It almost got difficult as a performer to get where we needed to go.
But, overall, Rio was incredible. It was absolutely beautiful. Everything you hear in the media — everything they made such a big deal about — it exists, but there are so many incredible things happening down there that they aren’t covering. The ocean is beautiful, the scenery is incredible, the people are so warm, and you haven’t heard that in the coverage. The food, the walking around — everything was so comfortable.
And, the entire time I was down there I didn’t see one mosquito (laughs). Once you’re there, you realize it’s not as big of a deal as the media makes it seem.
SDN: Jess, was that your first time to Rio?
Jessica Bellflower: For me it was so new. The entire thing was crazy. The executive producer of the opening ceremony for the Olympics walked us through and we met everybody on both teams for the opening ceremonies, and it was like this receiving line of hugs and kisses. When she says the people were very warm, they really were. It’s eye opening to see how many different people go into the ceremony, from London and Isreal and everywhere across the world. I hadn’t traveled much outside of the country before, and for me, to work with a Brazilian choreographer, that was awesome. She would explain things in English and it was very broke, but then she would start moving to explain and we would get it. It shows just how universal the language of dance can be.
SDN: Describe the opening routine: What is it like? I’m guessing samba is built into it somehow…
AP: Well, we can talk about a lot of it, but there are some things we have to keep secret. It’s a combination of samba, contemporary — so many things.
JB: The movement of samba is so free, and the Brazilian culture is so free. We got the chance to be immersed in the culture, we learned to count in Portuguese, then we got to watch them and how they moved.
AP: Yes, I’d say it was important for us to be down there to get the flavor of the area. Samba isn’t about moving your body a certain way — it’s about an attitude and a presence. For me, having prosthetic legs, I feel limited and stiff because my legs are very rigid. They’re carbon fiber. If your ankles don’t move then your knees don’t move then your hips don’t move, so learning a dance that was about moving freely has been difficult, but it’s made me realize I actually can move my body that way. I’m doing stuff I’ve never done before in front of millions and millions of people.
SDN: Amy, talk about dancing: Have you always enjoy getting on the floor, or did you pick it up for “Dancing with the Stars?”
AP: I’ve never really danced in my life. I love music, so I know I can hold a beat, and I would dance with friends at a club. But I’d never done real dance before. I was training for Sochi and so focused on that, that it was only two weeks before heading out there I discovered I was invited to “Dancing with the Stars.” I was so focused that I showed up in snow boots, a beanie, no dance clothes — I just didn’t grasp all that was happening. I really didn’t believe that it was happening until I was competing in Sochi, won a medal, flew 24 hours, landed in L.A. and, within 24 hours of that, I was live, on TV, dancing the cha-cha in front of millions of people (laughs).
I was quite nervous. For one, you’re in front of millions of people on TV and being judged. A huge part of the show is to be critiqued (and) I just didn’t want to be the first one to be eliminated. So much of dance is aesthetics, and I was thinking, “How will I point my toes like everyone else?” But it ended up being such an incredible experience for me and my partner, Derek Hough. Every week ended up being a new challenge and I would get frustrated at times that my body wouldn’t move the way I wanted them to, but then I found the swimming feet that we’re using in the Rio dance. It was a learning experience, learning how to get creative with the feet so that I can move.
JB: And that, in itself, has worked a lot into the choreography process: Does this work, does this not work, how can we adjust the feet to make a movement different? I have no idea what it’s like to dance on prosthetics, but to put myself literally in Amy’s feet — how can we work with them to make it different? — that is all part of the rehearsal process. That’s part of the choreography down in Rio too. It helped to have me there just to reiterate that, “This might not be entirely possible.”
AP: Yes, you can’t just choreograph a dance and then have me step into it. You have to modify things to work with a foot, or the running blades. The whole dance becomes intuitive to what my legs are allowing me to do in that movement.
SDN: Jess, what was it like choreographing the wedding dance for Amy and her husband? That was your first time working with her.
JB: It was awesome. Daniel was totally open-minded to doing everything, but you can tell when people are into it. Amy was coming off the show and she was confident in her movements, and that’s the whole thing about choreographing for someone: it’s theirs and no one else’s. It’s based on their movement. We threw that together so fast and worked together so well, and it ended up being beautiful. It showed how she had always done so well dancing with a partner. You’re individuals, but you rely on each on
AP: It was very special for us. My husband watched “Dancing with the Stars” — watched me dancing with someone else every week— so it was very nice to get out together.
SDN: Did you look up any other adaptive dancers before “Dancing with the Stars” to see what they do?
AP: Well, there aren’t that many adaptive dancers out there. I don’t really know any other leg amputee dancers to ask for help. We kind of had to figure it out as we went along.
JB: I don’t know if there are specific adaptive dancers, but when you look at something like No Barriers, they will get out and dance because people just love to dance. They might be blind, or have cerebral palsy, or have an issue with something else, and they still want to get out and dance.
AP: We hosted an adaptive dance clinic for a week with Adaptive Action Sports and Jessica taught salsa. We had at least 30 participants a day with a huge range of disabilities — maybe up to 50 people per day. We had everyone from people in wheelchairs to wounded vets with PTSD or others with cerebral palsy, and all of these people came to our salsa clinic because they wanted to do it. Everyone figured out their own way and had fun, and that’s the whole purpose of Adaptive Action Sports: is to offer these sports and passions to everyone. It’s been so nice working with Jess because she helps with Rio and No Barriers and this fundraiser event coming up.
SDN: What’s your favorite style at the moment?
JB: That’s a tough question — it’s just so, so big. I grew up more classically trained and I love contemporary dance, but I also love ballroom and samba and cha-cha. I guess that’s a bad question because I love everything (laughs).
AP: It’s funny: When I went on “Dancing with the Stars,” I told them I wanted to learn swing dancing. It just seems like so much fun. If you’re out with a husband or friend, you can be listening to Johnny Cash or anything and just dance. There aren’t many rules to it. We did that on “Dancing with the Stars,” and when I found out that they do swing dancing on Tuesday nights at Dillon Amphitheater, that was too cool. For me, swing dancing is just such a fun dance that anyone can do.
SDN: Talk about the swing event coming to Dillon, “Night of Inspiration.”
AP: There will be so much happening. There will be a motivational speech, a silent auction, and then Summit Swing — the locals that run the dance group — will teach the swing dance lessons. For me, an event like this is great. I’m not a dancer but I love dancing, and I want to share that with other people in Summit County.
JB: Other than these summer events, there isn’t much in the community to keep adults dancing all year. I’m opening a studio in Silverthorne, Studio Be Dance Center, that will give people a way to dance all year long.
SDN: Studio B — that’s B as in Bob?
JB: It’s Studio Be, like be whatever you want to be, or B for ballroom, or B for booty (both laugh).
SDN: Coming up soon is Dancing with the Mountain Stars, our local dance event. Will either of you be dancing there?
JB: Yes, I’m the lead local coach for that. I’ve been helping to train six of our eight stars this year, and it’s been great. Amy could be involved…
AP: I will be involved in a few different ways. We can’t say much more right now, but I’ll be involved.
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