Talk Like a Pirate Day: The Inspiration in a Peg Leg

When you wear a prosthetic leg to get around in life, the peg leg jokes in late October are inevitable. There aren’t many times when you have the advantage, but dressing up as a pirate on Halloween is definitely one of them.  I had always heard stories of prosthetists who would make custom pegs for their amputee clients but I’d never felt a need to ask for one myself. Then I heard about a peg that was designed specifically for hiking up uneven terrain, which is a problem I struggle with. So I got one ordered and tried it on for the first time just a few months ago.

Wobbly. That’s the term that comes to mind when I remember how it felt to replace my normal metal foot with this small stump of metal. Imagine standing up with a regular foot on one side and nothing but a post on the other. It’s hard to imagine, really. I wear prosthetics in everyday life and still underestimated how much I rely on having the front of a foot and toes (!) to give me balance. Any slight lean forward and I was tumbling toward the floor. It will take a lot of practice, starting with some jaunts around the uneven terrain of my back yard, before I’ll be comfortable trying this leg attachment out in the wilderness, but in the meantime I just might be considering that whole pirate costume for Halloween this year.

Photo: Judy Berna
Photo: Judy Berna

About the same time I was trying out my first peg leg, I stumbled across a story about a young man who does amazing things on his peg leg. It was an inspiring, gut wrenching story that begged to be shared. And what better time to share a story about a kid who dances on his peg leg than the day peg legs rule -Talk Like a Pirate day.

So buckle up.  Get ready to hear the tale that just might be your favorite story of this pirate themed day.

When Evan Ruggiero was a little boy he discovered dancing. Before long he was an expert in tap, joining the New Jersey Tap Ensemble at age 10. Through his teens he perfected his skills and was eagerly accepted into the dance program at Montclair State University. In September of 2009 he thought he’d injured his shin in practice. Instead of getting better over time, it got worse. Within a short time he was at the doctor’s office, and then the specialist’s office, where they found an aggressive bone cancer that changed the course of his life.

For months he endured surgeries and treatments to try to save his right leg. Just when it looked like they might be succeeding, the cancer returned. He officially became an above the knee amputee in May of 2010. But the fight wasn’t over. The cancer had returned to many areas of Evan’s body. It would take another year and a half of aggressive chemotherapy, and surgery to remove eight more tumors, before Evan could even begin to figure out what came next in life.

But no matter what, he was pretty sure it had to include dancing.

He quickly adapted to his regular prosthetic leg, but a video he’d seen in his younger days led him to ask his prosthetist for another type of leg too. A peg leg.

Evan had no idea he’d ever be facing a life with one leg when he first saw the videos of the tap dancer Peg Leg Bates, taken back in the 1930s and 1940s. . He was just intrigued that this entertainer, who had lost his leg in a cotton gin accident at age 12, could put on an impressive show with his hand made peg leg. Watch the incredible video of Peg Leg Bates in action. Clayton ‘Peg Leg’ Bates went on to have a very successful dancing career, performing 58 times on the Ed Sullivan Show and twice for the Queen of England.  A young Evan filed away the memory of those videos, then used them for inspiration a decade later.

The first time Evan tried out his new peg leg he did it alone. He set a camera up in the empty dance studio and pushed the record button. And he started tapping.

By the end of the session he was sending a copy of that video to his mom and dad, who were hiking in the mountains for their 25th wedding anniversary. As she read the words, “Mom, I’m tap dancing again’, then saw the video, his mom’s heart skipped and her knees buckled. Her boy was mastering legitimate dance moves, on a long peg of a leg.

Evan has moved on with his life. He’s still dancing, when he’s not giving speeches to high school students, reminding them to never give up. He graduates from college in December and plans to move to New York City or Los Angeles, where he can dance on Broadway or in movies and on television.

Photo: Jordan Matter

A peg leg is a fun toy for most amputees. I’ve heard that some of the owners of the type of peg leg I now own use them for the rapid side to side motions needed in paint ball. Some use them for climbing steep slopes, in places a metal foot just can’t navigate as well. But a peg leg can be so much more than just an accessory.

A young man named Evan has taken his metal pole of a leg and learned how to make magic with it. And in doing so, he’s taken back his life.