“I try not to set limits, I like to set goals. Anything that comes my way, anything that’s new, I’m all about it.” —Evan Ruggiero
Every once in a while in this crazy business you meet people who just absolutely blow your mind. There are thousands of incredibly talented, brilliantly smart, highly trained performers in show business— even those with a magical spark that makes them stand out amongst the already ridiculously talented pool of people. Once in a while, however, you meet someone who transcends what’s considered even extraordinary. I’ve had the pleasure of working with one of those people the last few weeks here, and since this is the last week I’ll be writing from Sonoma, I wanted to introduce to you Mr. Evan Ruggiero.
Now, before we get into the interview, one of which I’m sure you’ll find fascinating, I want to give you a little of Evan’s history, because, as with most of us, our history and our actions define us.
Evan Ruggiero, who’d danced all his life — specifically, as a remarkable tap dancer— was a nineteen year old musical theatre student at Montclair University in New Jersey when he was diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer called osteosarcoma in his right leg. After having a biopsy done to confirm the diagnosis, Evan managed to hang onto to his ever present and standard sense of humor and said to his doctor, “well, I guess I’ll have to buy a lot of hats now.”
Quickly thereafter, Evan began an aggressive treatment plan to attack the disease. After an arduous seven month treatment that included both chemo-therapy and surgeries that transferred bones from his left leg to his right, however, his cancer returned and had metastasized to his lungs. Evan, forever a persistent warrior, never lost hope, strength, or courage, and ALWAYS kept his very strong sense of humor.
The four hour conversation that occurred with his doctor shortly after he was informed of the return and spread of his cancer, was one that parsed words like “best option” and “amputation”. As one could only imagine, the first two hours of that conversation were devastating not just for a dancer, but for any human being; a conversation full of immense frustrations and tough questions. As that conversation began to progress toward the “what’s next”, the topic of prosthetics and their huge advancements emerged into the discussion.
During the second half of that four hour conversation as they were discussing the idea of prosthetics, Evan remembered back to a video he’d seen as a sixteen year old tap dancer at his New Jersey dance studio. He remembered a video his dance teacher had shown his studio class of a dancer by the name of Clayton “Peg-Leg” Bates. Bates, who’d lost his left leg in a cotton gin accident in 1919, had his uncle build him a peg leg on which he could tap dance. At the time Evan didn’t think much of the video of Bates, but as he sat in the hospital across from his doctor discussing the future of not just his dance career, but his life, he began to realize the significance of that video.
Evan looked his oncologist in the eye, and said, “I promise you I’m going to tap dance again.”
His doctor replied, “I promise, I’ll be there in the front row.”
They shook hands, and his oncologist vowed to save his life.
May 10th 2010, Evan underwent surgery to amputate his right leg above the knee. Sixteen months of chemo-therapy, two lung operations in which one-third of each lung was removed, and an unimaginable amount of courage and strength later he finished his treatment. In October of 2011, just two weeks after completing treatment, Evan sought out the prosthetist to whom he had asked to build him a modernized version of “Peg Leg” Bates’ dancing leg, and within hours of receiving his bright blue alloy tap dance peg-leg, he was back on his “feet” dancing.
It wasn’t until this passed year in 2016, however, did Evan actually get to dance for his doctor. At an event honoring his doctor, organized by a committee on which Evan currently sits, he was able to surprise his oncologist with a performance in which he tap danced; and true to his comedic form, the last thing Evan said to his doctor before taking the stage to dance was, “what took you so long?”
Last Thursday, before an event in which we were dancing with the children in the Boys and Girls Club of Sonoma, I sat down with Evan to talk about his early life, what he wants out of his career, and how he maintains his positive outlook and sense of humor.
MICHAEL: Evan, thank you for taking the time to sit down with me.
EVAN: Of course! My pleasure.
MICHAEL: So, tell me, how old were you when you started and how did you find your way to dance?
EVAN: I was five years old when I started dancing. Actually, my young life was very much like the song [II Can Do That] that I sing in our show*. Much like the character Mike in the song who used to watch his sister’s dance class, I did and thought the very same thing. My sister, who is three years younger, was in a ballet/jazz combo class and my mom used to bring me to the studio to pick her up. They had this little vent at the bottom of the studio wall that I used to peek into, and I thought, ‘that looks like a lot of fun’.
The very first dance class that I ever took was a jazz class, and my buddy and I were the only two guys in class; we really wanted to take class because we used to watch Michael Jackson music videos and we wanted to dance like he did.
So, we signed up for class, but a year later hequit, and I kept going. Very shortly thereafter, I first started taking tap.
MICHAEL: What was it like being a guy growing up dancing in New Jersey?
EVAN: (Laughing) Um, it was tough. It wasn’t easy. In elementary school, it kind of just happened; people knew I danced, I would perform in front of the class, it was no big deal. When I got to junior high, though, it was a different story. My junior high was a school that six different elementary schools fed into and, eventually it got out that I was a dancer. In sixth and seventh grade, I went through a period of time where I was made fun of and bullied—and because of it, I spent a good amount of time in the vice-principal’s office. All of it, just because I was a male dancer. In eighth grade, though, when I was at the top of the food chain, no one really bothered me about it anymore. When I finally got to high school and the other kids were starting to figure out who they were, it became cool If you were into the arts; they started to respect it, they got it.
MICHAEL: Even with your set backs you’ve still managed to have an amazing professional career so far. What do you want to do next and where do you see yourself going as a dancer?
EVAN: I would love to be on Broadway. That’s just an ultimate goal of mine. And, since I also love to tap, I’d love to continue to do that and travel as a solo dancer.
MICHAEL: Talk a little bit about your time performing in high school and college.
EVAN: When I was in high school I was involved in a professional tap company called the New Jersey tap ensemble, with which I’m still involved. [With the Tap Ensemble], I was able to really dance, but I began to realize I wanted to focus on theatre and music, too. I was tapping a lot, but also started doing the school musicals, and other theatre outside of my high school. When it came time to figure out where I wanted to go to college, though, I had no idea what I wanted to do. All I really knew is that I liked to sing, dance, and act. (Laughing) Then, once I realized that there was a thing called as a ‘Musical Theatre major’, I started applying to schools, and I ended up going to Montclair State University, where I got my B.F.A. in Musical Theatre. So, hopefully, with my training and experience I’ll be on Broadway, or traveling the world as a solo dancer; whichever or whatever it may be.
MICHAEL: You’ve done a lot of speaking engagements and some really high profile interviews, and because of your story you’ve become a role model and source of inspiration to so many people; how is it for you to carry that responsibility?
EVAN: I was never really trying to be a role model or an inspiration. I always just wanted to continue right where I left off. I was a singer/dancer/actor before cancer, and I wanted to be a singer/dancer/actor after cancer. The way it all happened was incredible, and I’m grateful for the opportunities that I’ve been given. I’m very grateful for where I get to go and travel and speak, and I’m very happy to do it, but, It can be tough sometimes. But, I love to share my story and talk with others about what I went through.
MICHAEL: In all your interviews, is there anything you’ve always wanted to say but never had a chance to?
EVAN: (Laughing) I like to wear my peg leg just a little bit shorter when I tap dance. It makes it easier, and that’s why I stand with a hunch back.
MICHAEL: You’re probably one of the chillest and most positive guys I’ve ever met in this business. With all of the things you’ve dealt with in your life, the difficulties you run into now, and working in a business that can be pretty rough, how do you maintain your positive outlook and strong sense of humor?
EVAN: You just gotta laugh about things! You’ve just got to be able to laugh about things.
Like, I’ll go to a dance or a tap audition, and here I am wearing shorts and with my [prosthetic] leg visibly seen, right? I’ll be standing there knowing everyone in that room is thinking, ‘what’s this guy with one leg doing here? Are we being Punk’d? Is this a joke?’ Then, I’ll switch out my legs and I’m sitting there spinning around my leg to take it off, and people are looking at me like, ‘is this guy messing with us?’ Then, when I put my peg leg on and start dancing… people are just, like, [amazed**]. Oh, it’s fun!
You know, I just like to have a good time, and I’m all about talking with people about my disability. As a matter of fact, I love talking to children about it. With children, it’s great because they just want to understand— and it’s never the children I have a tough time educating, it’s their parents. With a kid, they might just walk up to me, stare at me for a few seconds, and ask, ‘what’s that?’ And then the parents will say something like, ‘don’t ask questions like that’ or ‘don’t stare’; they’ll apologize to me for their kids. But, I’m okay with it! I want to educate their child! It always seems, though, that what actually needs to happen is, I need to educate the parents.
We live in a time where it’s very different for artists with disabilities, and we’re very open to the conversation. We’re not hiding behind our disabilities, we want to be engaged in discussing what we’re going through. So, yeah, that keeps me going… but really, you just have to be able to laugh about things.
MICHAEL: Outside of dance, what else drives you?
EVAN: I love playing with my band! I love playing guitar, drums, or piano with my bandmates.
MICHAEL: So you’re a rock-star, too?
EVAN: I grew up in New Jersey and the first concert I ever went to was Bruce Springsteen! I’ve always thought, ‘man I’d love to play guitar onstage and sing for hundreds of thousands of people’, I always thought that would be cool.
With my band, we play a lot of shows in New York City, but we also try to travel as much as we can.
But, yeah, there’s a lot of things I’d love to do as an artist: I want to be on Broadway, I want to dance around the world… and, maybe be a rock star.
…But, you know, wherever I wind up, I’m happy.
Evan is a bright star among us. I’ve seen him blow people’s minds on stage— like in the concert we’ve been working on together here in Sonoma— and in personal exchanges, like when he was introduced to a young fan, a double leg amputee, who had been inspired by him and finally had the chance to meet him. He is a man of immense character and a dancer who moves with a precision and fortitude unlike anyone I’ve ever met, and in a vocabulary all his own. He’s hip, strong, brave, hilarious, and wise. I’m glad we’re friends now, and I’m very glad he was willing to sit down and share his story.
You can follow Evan on instagram and twitter at @Lord_PegLeg to keep up with his latest news. If you’re in New York, make sure you check out his 54 Below solo show coming up in April called Evan Ruggiero: The One Legged Song and Dance Man at 54Below.com.
And of course before we go, Evan’s Top 5
Favorite post show meal: A good bacon cheeseburger with caramelized onions
Favorite post show beverage: Water
Favorite style to dance: Tap
Dancer who inspires you: My dance teacher, Deborah Mitchell
Music that gets you going: The Rolling Stones — Give Me Shelter
Michael Mahany is a host and the New York Correspondent for DanceNetwork.tv. He is also a professional actor. To find out more check out his website at www.michaelmahany.com and be sure to follow him on twitter and instagram at @michaelmahany.
*Our show was called The Best Of Broadway Under The Stars. It was a concert style show in Sonoma, CA; produced by the wonderful Transcendence Theatre Company (transcendencetheatre.org).
**’Amazed’ was my choice of word. Evan made a onomatopoetic noise that I couldn’t quite figure out how to write down. It was a ‘zipping’ sort of sound to signify people being aghast.
Compilation Photo Credits: playbill.com/youtube.com/Montclair.edu
Top Photo: James Jin, Evan Ruggiero
All other Photo credits: Jordan Matter, Evan Ruggiero
LEARN MORE: Evan on Ellen HERE