Steve Mitchell competes in the Pro-Am Newcomer Division of the Tampa Bay Classic in September 2011 with his dance instructor, Marina Laca and placed first.
CLEARWATER – Steve Mitchell was all nerves. He glanced at his competitors. He’d overheard his instructor complaining that it looked like they had been dancing definitely more than a year so shouldn’t be allowed to compete in the Newcomer division. But now there was nothing to do but dance his best.
The Tampa Bay Classic was a whole day event, starting with the smooth ballroom dances in the morning, such as the waltz, tango and foxtrot. After about the first two or three dances, he was finally loosened up. Later in the afternoon it was time for the Latin dances, such as the cha-cha and the rumba. He had only begun ballroom dancing in August 2010 – only 13 months earlier. But when it was all over, he had achieved first place in the Newcomer division.
The judges hadn’t even noticed that Mitchell has a prosthetic right leg.
Mitchell lives in Seminole, works in Clearwater, and takes ballroom dancing lessons from Marina Laca, following her to studios in Clearwater, Pinellas Park and St. Petersburg. Mitchell’s oldest daughter, Stephanie, dances, and his wife, Debbie, wanted to start. And that meant Mitchell had to come, too. At first he really wasn’t into it. The moves felt funny. He’d look at the clock, wondering when the hour would be over. But one day, it all clicked. And he was hooked.
Neither Marina nor her husband, Martin, had ever had an amputee student before. She has been teaching for 10 years in the Tampa Bay area, and she has never seen anything like it. The studio had warned her and Martin not to say anything about his leg, but after they all met, it became a nonissue. They discussed it, but it didn’t get in the way of dancing. Occasionally there are technical challenges with the prosthesis, but more often than not, everyone forgets that Steve doesn’t have two regular legs.
“I teach exactly the same,” Marina said. “And I would tell him, ‘Point your foot’ without even realizing it was his prosthetic leg. … But I say do as much as you can with your other leg. And usually what we try to do is find where the other thigh is by connecting both thighs, working toward one another instead of trying to find the foot because I think that has a little more connection because if the thighs are close then your feet are close.”
Mitchell said some techniques are more difficult with the artificial leg, such as compression rotation moves where you have to compress, rotate and move across the floor in smooth dances. Also, pushing off the floor in certain dances like foxtrot or rumba are challenging because he cannot feel the ground beneath his prosthesis.
“In Latin rumba, you’re taking a step, extending the leg out and then the other leg comes over, but it’s the back step that gives me problems because now I have to move (my prosthetic leg) and push it back and feel the floor before you go onto it, and that’s a little more difficult because there I’m off balance. So I have to still be straight, pull it straight and move across it again.”
But with anything, if someone tells Mitchell that he can’t do something that makes him determined to do it anyway.
Mitchell lost his leg in 1990 in a boating accident. The boat he was on was in Lake Kissimmee and it steered out of control in what is called bow steering, and the boat did a quick 360-degree turn in what felt like a split second, Mitchell said. There was a younger boy in the boat who began to fall out. Mitchell reached to grab him, but he was off balance and both of them ended up falling into the water.
“I just felt that something very bad was getting ready to happen because when I fell out, I knew the back of the boat was steering over the top of us because it was spinning out to the right,” Mitchell said. “So I moved down as soon as I hit the water, trying to get below the engine. Of course when you’re diving down, the last thing to go down is your feet. So it did catch my right foot and it got caught in the prop, but luckily the motor cut off and I was able to sort of get the prop and turn it back to the left and get my foot out and jump back in the boat, pulling the boy back into the boat as well.”
Another boat had seen the whole thing happen and came over to help. Mitchell went aboard the boat, and as it was bringing him to the marina, Mitchell took off his shirt, tied it around his leg and used an oar to tighten it into a tourniquet. The paramedics wanted to air lift him to Tampa General, but it was summer and there were too many thunderstorms along the way. So Mitchell was taken by ambulance to a hospital in Winter Haven.
The prop had been so sharp, it took a while for him to feel the pain.
“I didn’t even really feel it,” Mitchell said. “You know when you cut yourself with a razor and it’s such a sharp split second cut that you don’t even feel it and then you see the wound open up and the blood start pouring out? It was like that. I didn’t really feel it until 15, 20 minutes later.”
His leg went into shock so it helped cut off its own blood supply, Mitchell said.
“They took me to the ER, and if you want to make light of anything, you know how going to the ER and there are always 150 people sitting around? Well I didn’t wait that day,” Mitchell said. “I went straight into the operating room.”
From that point, he doesn’t remember much because he was pretty drugged up, he said, but Mitchell remembers the young surgeon who told him he would have to lose his leg.
“I asked if there was any way to save it,” Mitchell said. “I said, ‘If you can’t do it, is there anybody on the planet who has the capability and knowledge to do it? Could you ship me to New York or something?’ And he goes, ‘No,’ and I said, okay, where do I sign? As soon as he said no, I was like, let’s get it done.”
For Mitchell, that was it. He made his decision because that is what needed to be done and he accepted that.
Robert Dixon Jr., Mitchell’s current licensed prosthetist who works at Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics in Clearwater, said it is crucial to amputate when necessary as soon as possible.
“If you don’t, you could possibly run into gangrenous issues,” Dixon said. “Gangrene, infections, it could affect him in other areas. “
Mitchell was in the hospital for two and a half more weeks. His leg had been raw and exposed in a lake, with all the algae, bacteria and other stuff in the water getting into his open wound, so it took a while to make sure it was all cleaned out and there was not going to be any problems with infection.
Unlike many people, Mitchell did not have a hard time emotionally dealing with the loss of his leg.
“I guess I am a people pleaser, so I knew how upsetting it was for my wife and my parents and friends, so I was more concerned about them than myself,” Mitchell said. “I wanted to reassure them that I’m okay. And of course they want to reassure me that I’m okay. And then we made fun and joked about it that I’m in denial. ‘Steve lost his foot.’ ‘What foot? What are you talking about? I still have a foot.’ You just do what you have to do to survive. And you can take self-pity on yourself. You can use it as excuses. But I didn’t want to do that. … It really depends on how you want to handle that mentally for how you live the rest of your life.”
Dixon smiled at Mitchell and said he wished he could bottle that attitude and give it to some of his other patients who need an extra boost.
Fitting someone with a prosthesis is a very personal task. The professionals ask the client many questions about their lifestyle to find the exact right one for them. For Mitchell, he has a very active lifestyle, playing golf regularly, working out a few times a week, and now dancing. He came to Dixon in about 2006 to refit him with a prosthetic leg. He had shrunk out of the socket, so Dixon gave him a more snug fit and they shopped around for a more dynamic foot that would give him more options with his active lifestyle.
“Someone who is going to demand a lot out of a prosthesis, they need a very intimate fit,” Dixon said. “If it’s not snug and tight fitting, you don’t control it well. It’s a loose appendage. You want this thing to be extremely snug and tight, contoured to his anatomy. And you don’t want pressures in areas that are uncomfortable. Bony landmarks. You have to touch them but not apply pressures there. But the bigger issue was what he needed to do with his activities, so the foot was crucial.”
Hanger makes the sockets but buys the feet. Dixon explained many options of feet to Mitchell to best fit his needs at the time. Now that he has heard Mitchell, Marina and Martin talk about the specific dance needs, Dixon has new ideas for how a foot could give him even more swivel and could help do more dance moves. His current foot is designed to be conducive with his activity level.
“It’s called energy return, so when he steps down on it and loads it with his body weight, the design of the foot coils, and as he rolls over it and gets to a certain part of his stance phase and is walking, it returns that energy,” Dixon said.
Essentially, the foot’s mechanics work like the muscles in one’s foot and calf and the toe levers.
Dixon and the others at Hanger stay on top of the science and resources that are always coming out and are changing in prosthetics and orthotics. New metals, designs and carbons help offer clients even more ways to live a dynamic life. Hanger and two of its prosthetists, Kevin Carroll, out of the Clearwater office, and Daniel Strzempka, out of the Sarasota office, are the ones who designed the prosthetic tail for Winter the dolphin. They even designed a new kind of gel to cushion the tail that now human patients are using, Dixon said. That fact that the industry is always changing and working with each client is so unique is what keeps Dixon excited and engaged in his work, even after 16 years. And people like Mitchell make it exciting, too.
“With high activity patients like Steve, they allow us to use a lot of the technologies that are presented to us,” Dixon said. “You cherish and enjoy every patient you work with, but it’s nice to be able to utilize some of those higher, advance technologies with patients.”
Mitchell takes dance lessons two or three times a week and also attends a Friday night social dance where he dances consistently from 8:30 to 11 p.m. He primarily dances at First Dance Studio in St. Petersburg, and Dancer’s Co-Op and Dance America Dance Studio, which are both in Clearwater. Marina and Martin are now private, independent instructors, so he goes wherever they are teaching. He dances at the bronze level now, though Marina’s goal is to have him learning silver moves soon.
Mitchell focuses on the whole ballroom spectrum, which is a total of nine dances. There are nine dances he had to learn – five in rhythm, which is American-style Latin, and four in smooth.
“The students have to learn different postures, positions, poise, frames, and also the biggest responsibility for the guy is to learn how to lead,” Marina said. “And of course the different dances require a different hold, a different feel. They have different characters.”
Mitchell’s favorite dances rotate, but currently he enjoys waltz and the other smooth dances the most, like tango and foxtrot. But a few months ago his favorites were some of the Latin dances, like cha-cha and rumba.
“But his best dance by far – I have to brag about him – are swing and hustle,” Marina said. “Those dances he just knocks out of the park.”
Mitchell’s family always joke with each other, and that extends to dancing as well.
“When I started dancing and went to the social dances on Friday nights, my wife would say, ‘Have they asked you to leave the studio yet?’” Mitchell said. “Because I can’t feel the bottom of my foot. So I could step on your foot and I wouldn’t know it. So when they do a mixer and you get up and dance with one after another after another, she felt the owner of the studio would have to come over to me and say, ‘Steve, we’re going to have to ask you to leave.’”
“But now he is able to dance with everybody,” Marina added. “There isn’t anyone he can’t get up with and do his basic figures. And that’s a big achievement.”
Since he began dancing, Mitchell has competed in a team match where studios went up against studios. His team won the trophy in that competition. He also competed in the Tampa Bay Classic where he won the newcomer division for males, and he also recently danced in the Holiday Extravaganza Magic Dance Club Showcase in December. There he danced in front of world-class judges who give all the dancers detailed notes that can help them improve their dancing.
Mitchell has always worked out, both before and after the accident, but since dancing, he has shifted from doing primarily weight training to cross training to get more cardio to build up his endurance for dance.
Mitchell’s goals for dance are just to keep improving and reaching higher levels. Marina has even more specific goals for him.
“Getting him more confidence and believing when he goes on the floor that it’s his,” Marina said. “And when there are people around him that he can just pass right through them.”
She wants to work with him even more on his posture, artistry, arms, presentation, and becoming an even more confident lead. And the silver level is in his near future, she added. But overall, she is very impressed with Mitchell.
“I have to say, in my 10 years of dance teaching experience, I’ve never had anyone like Steve,” Marina said. “He is just someone who takes his obstacles with grace. He doesn’t let anything trip him up. If he’s tired, he’s just going to keep going. He’s a real great example of showing people there’s no limits, no matter what happens to you. If you really want to do something, you will do it. In just a year, he has improved tremendously.”
Through it all, Mitchell maintains a positive attitude.
“Everyone is dealt a hand of cards in life,” Mitchell said. “And it doesn’t matter if your hand is a physical disability, a mental disability, somebody in your family going through something. It doesn’t matter. Everybody is dealt cards, and you have to take the cards you’re dealt with and use them to the best of your ability.”
Steve lives in Seminole with his wife, Debbie, and daughters, Stephanie, 19, and Courtney, 17.