Just recently the young Japanese Oto- take Hirotada came to Taiwan to promote his autobiography Gotai Fumanzoku (Not In Perfect Shape). He was born with neither arms nor legs, yet his confidence and optimism towards life amazed people and won their respect.
In Taiwan, there is a dance group called Crescent Beauty-a group of amputees who have been dancing with all their might for themselves and for others. Have you heard of them? Theirs is a moving story too.
On a rainy, windy Saturday afternoon, a group of amputees gather in a classroom of the dance department at Chinese Culture University (CCU), perched high up on Yangmingshan. These people who have hurried here from far and wide after finishing work are the members of the Crescent Beauty dance group, busy rehearsing for the cross-strait Disabled People's Talent Show to be held on 5 December at Taipei's Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall.
Some of the ten or so dancers are hand amputees and some are foot amputees, but they have all taken off their prostheses and put on aerobic dancing costumes to join in the dance. Outside, the wind is whistling and the rain is pouring down, but inside it is sweat which drenches the dancers. Their volunteer instructress Yan Tsui-chen, a teacher in CCU's dance department, repeatedly and patiently demonstrates movements for them, ignoring her own leg injury. A number of dance department staff and students watching from the sidelines are full of praise, and frequently lend their assistance.
The beauty of the crescent moon
"The moon is sometimes bright, sometimes dark, sometimes round, sometimes incomplete. The full moon is beautiful, but the crescent moon has its own charm too." So says Tseng I-shih, director of the Full Rehabilitation Association for Teenaged Amputees (FRATA) and deputy director of the National Dr. Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, who single-handedly created the Crescent Beauty dance group for people with limb-related disabilities.
Amputees and other limbless people are placed in the general category of people with limb-related disabilities. But their needs are very different from those of, say, polio or cerebral palsy victims. This is why Tseng I-shih set up FRATA three years ago to assist limbless people.
The association has over 300 members, of which half are care professionals and half are limbless people. The latter are mainly young people, with an average age under 40. Tseng, who is not disabled himself, but who has come into contact with many limbless people in more than 20 years of social welfare work, says the association aims to serve both amputees and people with congenital limb deficiency, by helping them find the courage to strengthen themselves and also to help others.
"Our orientation is building muscle strength and promoting health-we're not a professional performance troupe." Crescent Beauty dance instructress Yan Tsui-chen feels that moving towards professional performance would be too demanding for her limbless students, and that Taiwanese society is not yet ready to support a professional disabled dance troupe. At present Crescent Beauty has 22 members-11 in southern Taiwan and 11 in northern Taiwan. They all have their own jobs, so they can only come to dance practice in their time off at weekends.
Although Crescent Beauty is an amateur group, just for it to be set up and to be able to perform in public, all kinds of obstacles had to be overcome.
"In the beginning our main purpose was not dancing, but to use these simple dance movements to build suppleness and balance, and in that way to promote health." Crescent Beauty member Hu Shu-chun says that when it was announced that the group would perform on stage at the first Disabled People's Talent Show, many members withdrew in horror. In the end only three out of nearly ten actually took part in the performance.
One of the three, Liu Shu-mei, also "did a bunk" after the performance. Born in 1973, Liu had her left leg amputated above the knee after a road accident when she was six years old. She was one of the founding members of FRATA. "I first joined the dance class just to get some exercise," she says, recalling that after performing on stage without her prosthesis, she was so embarrassed that she fled back home to Taichung. It was only after she heard that the performance had been quite well received, and following several concerned phone calls from the association director, that she came back. Since then she has not only taken part in further performances-she is now executive secretary of FRATA.
You needn't be whole to be beautiful
Limbless people not only include amputees, who may have had limbs removed due to disease or accidents, but also those with congenital limb deficiency-people born with limbs missing or defective.
Congenital limb deficiency has many causes. In some cases the cause is unclear, while in others drugs or inappropriate medical procedures may be to blame. For instance, in the 1960s the use of the sedative drug thalidomide to treat morning sickness caused many children to be born with their limbs greatly foreshortened or missing entirely. Five or six years ago, botched chorionic villus sampling (CVS) procedures also resulted in many babies with missing or deformed arms and legs.
Current government statistics in Taiwan lump the limbless together with other people with limb-related disabilities, so that there are no separate figures for their numbers. But FRATA director Tseng I-shih says that with the gradual fall in the number of polio victims since the introduction of vaccination, in future limbless people will make up the bulk of this group.
The number of limbless people is substantial, but they are not easily noticed. "We're different, but we don't like to reveal that difference," is how Hu Shu-chun puts it.
But in fact, limbless people's desire to "hide" their imperfections is often the result of their environment.
"Once I was riding a bicycle wearing a skirt when my prosthesis fell off. The way people looked at me made me feel like I was naked," recounts Liu Shu-mei. When another amputee pressed a lift button with her arm stump, a woman next to her screamed and ran out of the lift, leaving her at a loss for words.
"It's true that some people are over-inquisitive, or don't know how to react," says Tseng I-shih. But, he avers, this simply goes to show that the public at large needs more opportunities to get used to disabled people.
"On the one hand we want to help the disabled to openly and naturally accept themselves and face the world at large, but on the other we also hope that by getting them to speak about their experiences we can encourage and educate the public." Tseng says that this was his motivation in setting up the Crescent Beauty dance group, and in getting amputees to take off their prostheses and perform in public. The magazine Crescent Beauty, established last year, also gives members more chances to express their feelings and experiences, and give each other encouragement.
In Tseng's eyes, the dance group members have all achieved a level of "health" and "openness" sufficient to boost the confidence of other disabled people. Nonetheless, in their daily lives they still suffer unfair treatment, or face other problems they find it difficult to talk about.
Hu Shu-chun, whose right leg was crushed by a steel billet when she was in kindergarten, has been walking with an artificial leg for over 20 years. But she reveals that the prosthesis not only often gives her sores where it rubs against her skin, but is also unbearably hot in summer, and if it catches on something she may trip over.
Hu Shu-chun, who began teaching at Chung Cheng Junior High School in 1996 after taking first place in the special examination for disabled civil service applicants, says she actually has few problems in her working life. Her biggest frustrations come from other people's hurtful way of speaking. "I'm always trying to make myself stronger, and training myself not to take too much notice of what other people say. But it still hurts whenever I hear someone say I'm a 'cripple.'"
The fact that their disability is not obvious also causes some problems for amputees. For instance, when they use the disabled seats in buses, people often look askance. But what Liu Shu-mei fears most is using the escalators in MRT stations. "People in Taipei really do walk very fast, and when there's a jostling crowd behind me it makes me nervous."
"I lost my left hand in a car accident when I was nine, but I've hardly ever cried about my hand," says Chen Yung-chieh. She doesn't feel there's anything inconvenient about only having one hand. For instance, she says, things like fastening a necklace, putting in contact lenses, changing a baby's nappy or doing up shoelaces can all be done with one hand. "When my husband first started courting me, it was because he thought doing up shoelaces with one hand was so amazing!" she says with a laugh.
But while some people express admiration or try to help when they see someone doing things one-handed, others have an attitude of suspicion or prejudice. Once when Chen, as a student, went for a holiday job at an electronics factory, the manager, seeing she only had one hand, refused her; the classmates she had gone with left too in protest at this unfair treatment. Another time, she was working as a scorekeeper at a bowling alley. When the manager came by on his rounds and saw she only had one hand, he immediately told her not to come again the next day.
Breaking out of their cocoons
Stares and discrimination from those around them affect all limbless people to some degree. "Covering up is easy, but explaining is difficult," observes Tseng I-shih. He feels this is the biggest source of amputees' psychological hangups.
Tseng says that limbless people's ability to compete in society is the best among all disabled people. Their biggest obstacle is in overcoming their inhibitions.
"The idea that I could show my arm stump, and quite naturally let somebody take a photograph for everyone to see-you must be joking! It's my 'shameful little secret'-I haven't even told my husband, the person closest to me, that I feel that way. Still less could I let other people see it." This is how Chen I-chun analyses her feelings in the first issue of Crescent Beauty.
Chen Yung-chieh says that in the past she felt unwilling to be with other disabled people. She always thought: "Why should a lot of disabled people be all together-that's too much like fishing for sympathy!" But after Tseng I-shih "inspired" her to join Crescent Beauty and go on stage, she felt as if she had peeled away layer after layer of protective shells and stress.
For dance teacher Yan Tsui-chen, training the students physically is perhaps not so difficult. What is harder is overcoming their psychological inhibitions. One new member in particular had great difficulty in conquering his initial awkwardness. He told her that what he hated most was looking in a mirror, because it pained him to see himself; but the dance classroom was full of mirrors, so he felt there was nowhere he could escape from his image.
Yan says that for her too, it took a long process of learning and feeling her way forward to go from her initial feelings of not daring to look directly at their scars, to being able to touch their stumps with her own hands and understand their physical pain and their feelings.
Sweat and tears
"They get more graceful every year!" This is the heartfelt praise which Yan Tsui-chen gives her Crescent Beauty dance students. She says that at the beginning their limbs were stiff and they were rather inhibited and unwilling to express themselves, and were always looking down at the floor. But as they gradually grew more practiced and skillful, they also learned to open up and display their emotions, and in this way their dancing became more and more confident and beautiful.
"We don't have any natural talent, and we also start out with a disadvantage because each of us is amputated at a different position, so we often can't move in harmony." Hu Shu-chun's voice and expression are full of gratitude for Yan Tsui-chen.
In fact, it really is difficult for amputees to dance, because the stress of dancing on one leg is many times that of dancing on two. But as well as needing the stamina to bear the weight, they must also work hard to control their balance if they are not to fall over.
For Yan Tsui-chen, designing dance movements for amputees was an entirely new experience and challenge. "I have to try out all the movements myself using one hand or one leg," she says.
In order to understand how strenuous the movements are for her students, and their difficulties in keeping their balance, Yan Tsui-chen often dances with them on one leg or using one hand. She says one can't stand on one leg too long, and moving is more comfortable than standing still. So in the movements she choreographs, she uses the arms or upper body for support as much as possible.
Pity which restricts is discrimination
When Crescent Beauty perform, their movements may not be perfect, but they are so touching that people cannot help shedding tears.
Tseng I-shih says that on watching a Crescent Beauty performance most people are deeply moved, often to tears. But he admits that a small number of people react differently. Some say: "Showing amputated limbs is very rude," while others say: "Making amputees perform on stage is cruel and heartless."
In fact, comments like these reflect the many restrictions society imposes on limbless people. In his autobiography, Ototake Hirotada describes how he once took part in a running race at his elementary school: "When the audience saw me running along with my bottom on the ground, I can just imagine some of them saying: 'Why do they make a kid like that run in front of everybody? Poor thing. The school really is too insensitive.' But I think views like that are actually a form of prejudice."
Professor Wu Wu-tien of National Taiwan Normal University's department of special education writes, in a paper entitled "Talent Development and Work Skills Development in the Disabled" that overseas scholars assume that the number of gifted people among the disabled is similar to that among the non-disabled. Yet the proportion of gifted disabled people who are high achievers falls far below that of the gifted non-disabled. This is partly because the disability itself may hinder the development of their potential, but it is also because their environment presents so many obstacles.
Developing disabled people's potential is something which was overlooked in Taiwan's special education in the past. Professor Wu feels this issue should be tackled from two directions: that of developing disabled people's creative and artistic talents, and that of developing their work-related skills. Of these, developing creative talents can fulfill disabled people's need for self-realization.
I have dreams too
For amputees, going up on stage and dancing is one form of self-realization. Yan Tsui-chen stresses that dance is a composite art form in which music, clothing, the stage and the audience's applause are all very important for building the amputees' self-confidence.
"I used to think that with my leg gone there were many things I couldn't do. But now I have more confidence in my own body," says Liu Shu-mei, adding cheerfully: "If I wasn't an amputee, I might have been a top athlete!"
"My understanding of myself and self-confidence have come so very late." But having gained this new confidence, Liu hopes she can help other amputees regain their self-confidence more quickly.
Just recently, she has been visiting a five-year-old girl at Taipei's Veterans General Hospital who had a leg amputated after being trapped under a collapsed building following the 21 September earthquake. At first the child would not even look at her amputated leg. But gradually, by showing her photographs and artificial limbs, Liu Shu-mei has got her to accept the fact of her amputation. Although she still says: "I liked my old leg better!" compared to her initial denial she has made great progress.
"My dream is to be able to run," says Hu Shu-chun. On reading Ototake Hirotada's autobiography, she could not help lamenting: "What a pity nobody tried to bring out my potential when I was growing up!"
Despite a slow start, it is not too late-Crescent Beauty's amputee dancers have made the impossible possible, and have not only danced their way to self-confidence, but have also sprung over the obstacles and barriers around them. For them, from now on nothing is impossible.
Dana Bolles (far left), who was born without arms or legs, is an avionics safety engineer with NASA. Two years ago she visited Taiwan at FRATA's invitation. (courtesy of FRATA)
Up on stage, the dancers perform with confidence and exuberance, while down below the audience applaud with tears in their eyes. Pictured are the Crescent Beauty dance group performing a dance set to the Amis song Up on the High Ridge. (courtesy of FRATA)
"The crescent moon and the full moon are equally beautiful." Dance teacher Yan Tsui-chen's patient coaching helps the Crescent Beauty dancers develop confidence and grace.
Dancing on one leg is a great test of strength and balance. To reduce the strain, movements have to be designed to use the arms and body for support.
(facing page) Losing an arm or leg doesn't mean you can't dance. The Crescent Beauty dance group is rehearsing hard for this year's Disabled People's Talent Show.
Taiwan's Full Rehabilitation Association for Teenaged Amputees, and the mainland's Chinese Disabled Persons' Association organize exchange visits and contacts every year. Last year a group from Taiwan went to Gansu Province to meet local disabled people. (courtesy of Chen Yung-chieh)
Chen Yung-chieh, who lost her left hand as a child, is happily married, and her two children dote on the mother who brought them up "single-handed."