Dancing Into New Adventures

The odds seemed stacked against Steve Mitchell as he anxiously
waited for the results to be announced at the Tampa Bay Classic. This was
Mitchell’s first time competing in front of judges at a ballroom dancing
competition, having only been formally dancing for 1 year, and the competition
had been stiff throughout the course of the event.

Mitchell also has a prosthetic right foot.

In 1990, Mitchell, 28 years old at the time, was on a boat in Lake
Kissimmee, Fla. when the boat lost control, and a young boy on board began to
fall over the edge. Mitchell reached out to catch him, but he was off balance,
and they both toppled overboard.

“I fell out of the boat, and the prop caught my right foot, above
the Achilles tendon,” Mitchell told O&P Business News
“Then the next blade hit and took the heel off, and then the next blade
flipped around and took off the front of my foot.”

When he arrived at the hospital, the doctors were unable to salvage the
foot, and they amputated about 2 inches above his ankle. Mitchell had always
been athletic — golfing and working out at the gym — before the
amputation, so he tried to remain positive and focused on how he could return
to his active lifestyle.

“It was a major life change. The doctors told me, ‘You can do
everything that you did before, but it just might take more effort. You might
have to do it differently, but you can still do it,’” Mitchell said.
“It took me about a year to get acclimated to my new lifestyle, but I
still do everything that I did before. It might be a little harder to do, but
it can still be done.”

Initial resistance

Mitchell began his journey into ballroom dancing with some hesitance.
His oldest daughter, Stephanie, had begun taking lessons, and after watching
their daughter, his wife, Debbie, thought it would be something fun to do as a

“She came home one day and said, ‘It looks like a lot of fun.
We should do it, because we haven’t done much lately as a married couple
because you are always working,’” Mitchell said. “And that did
not interest me in the least bit, but she dragged me in there.”

In the summer of 2010, Steve took his first lesson with Marina
and Martin Laca, a husband and wife teaching duo, at their studio,
Dance Connections.

“They put me with Marina, and Debbie was with Martin. And they
could tell that I didn’t want to be there for the first few months,”
Mitchell said with a laugh.

However, as the weeks wore on and Mitchell’s abilities improved, he
began to enjoy it.

“It got to be a challenge, because people would say, ‘Oh, poor
Steve. He’s never going to be a dancer. He can’t do it with a
prosthesis,’” Mitchell said. “So the more people would say stuff
like that, the more I wanted to prove them wrong. And it all grew from

Dancing with a prosthesis

In ballroom dancing, the dances are separated into two groups, smooth
and rhythmic. The smooth dances include the waltz, foxtrot and tango, and the
rhythmic, more Latin dances include the cha cha, rumba, swing, mambo and
merengue. Each dance involves a different set of steps, turns and moves.

“The smooth dances require a lot of up and down, compression,
rotation, pivot turns, things of that nature. And the Latin dances are a whole
other spectrum,” Mitchell said. “With the smooth dances you are
constantly moving across the floor, probably the length of a basketball court,
back and forth. But the Latin dances require a smaller space, and there’s
more hip and knee action and rhythm.”

All of these moves require a great deal of balance, strength and
flexibility, especially in the foot and ankle, to execute properly, so Mitchell
worked with his prosthetist, Robert Dixon, LCPO, of Hanger Clinic in
Clearwater, Fla., to find a prosthesis that met his needs.

“Steve makes my job easy because he’s very athletic and has a
lot of attributes that allow him to accomplish high stress activities,”
Dixon said. “His prosthesis was in place, and he had been very comfortable
in it for years before he started dancing. So we gave him a dynamic multiaxial
foot to help him accommodate his demands from dancing.”

Mitchell said that one of the biggest challenges for him while dancing
is maintaining his balance.

“When you’re dancing and competing against people with two
legs, it makes it a lot more difficult because I have to mimic them, but I also
have to cover up my shortfalls,” he said. “You have to make it so
that it will pass the judges’ eyes without them noticing.”

Dixon said that he has a few ideas in mind that he would like to try
with Mitchell.

“The foot he has is good, but I am hoping to incorporate something
that may make it even more functional for him. For example, a torsion rotator
may decrease some of the shearing that goes on when goes to stop and plant and
pivot,” Dixon said. “If he tries it and likes it, great. But if he
doesn’t like it, then he’s still doing wonderful without it.”

A learning experience

This was the first time that Marina and her husband had taught an
amputee student.

“When I first met him, I decided to treat him like a regular
student. He doesn’t let his leg limit him, so why should I?” Marina
said. “And it’s been a learning experience for me as well.”

Marina instructs Mitchell to be aware of his movements with his left leg
that so he can easily copy them on his right leg.

“I have taught him to be more aware of his good leg, since he
can’t feel the floor with his prosthesis. He can’t even feel my foot
if he steps on it, but he’s usually pretty good about not doing
that,” Marina added with a laugh.

Mitchell had been taking lessons with Marina 2 to 3 times a week for
several months when she first suggested that he enter a competition, although
Mitchell admits that he resisted the idea initially. To acclimate Mitchell to
what a competition was like, he participated in a studio showcase, where
Mitchell’s studio competed against two others.

“I was pretty much just a social dancer up until that point. I
wasn’t really concentrating on poise and posture and the moves,”
Mitchell said. “Marina wanted to get me ready for a big competition
because I’d never been on a dance floor where judges and other people were
watching you.”

The Tampa Bay Classic

The Tampa Bay Classic, which occurred in September 2011, is an all-day
event with the smooth dances occurring in the morning, followed by an attire
change and the Latin dances in the afternoon. The dancers are separated into
categories based on their skill level — gold, silver and bronze, and
experience — newcomer, novice, intermediate and advanced. Mitchell would
be competing in the bronze newcomer division.

“I was very nervous because this was my first major
competition,” Mitchell said. “And I overheard my instructor tell her
husband that some of the men in my category were doing silver level moves and
shouldn’t be considered bronze. That is hard to compete against, so I
didn’t think I had a chance to win.”

The Classic is a large competition; competitors travel from as far as
Texas and Tennessee. Mitchell would be competing in front of about 15 judges.

“When I started out in the beginning of the day, my heart was in my
throat,” Mitchell said. “But by the end of the day, I got used to the
judges and all of the people looking at me, and it started getting fun.”

At the close of the competition, Mitchell gathered for the awards
ceremony and was shocked when he heard his name announced as the winner of his

“When they announced that I was the newcomer bronze winner, we were
just floored,” Mitchell said. “But we really concentrated on basic
form and moves, and it worked.”

Marina attributes his success to his determination and adaptability.

“I’ve seen a lot of development with his waltz and tango
because he is learning how to move from one leg to the other and really move
across the floor,” she said.

“It’s easier to get away with making a mistake with the faster
dances because your poise and posture does not need to be as formal,”
Steve added. “But now I’ve been working with Marina for so long that
my ability and posture is really starting to come in, and I’m starting to
like the waltz and the tango.”

Mitchell, who lives in Seminole, Fla. with his wife and two daughters,
Stephanie and Courtney, is working with Marina to learn some silver level
moves. He recently transferred his business to new ownership, so he is looking
forward to devoting more time to dancing and already thinking about his next

“I think that if people see what I can do, then they will realize
that they can do it, too,” Mitchell said. “I want people to know that
if they want to go snow-skiing or horseback riding or become a good golfer or
dancer, whatever they want to do, they can do it. That’s really what I
want to achieve through all of this.”

“Steve is an inspiration to everyone he meets. He is missing part
of his leg, and he is dancing, and dancing pretty well,” Marina said.
“People turn their heads right and left when he is on the floor.”

Dixon, who now has a newfound appreciation for ballroom dancing, also
expressed similar praises for Mitchell.

“Steve is a wonderful patient to work with. Not only because of his
physical abilities, but because of his desire and ambitions,” he said.
“And Steve’s been an inspiration for some of our other patients. He
is just one of those people that leads by example and proves that you can
overcome physical challenges and still have a great quality of life.”
by Megan Gilbride

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