From Madison Square Garden to Jack London Park, dancer steps past disability

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If You Go

What: “Gala Celebration”

When: preshow picnicking at 5 p.m., show at 7:30 p.m. Friday through Saturday, Sept. 6-8

Where: Jack London State Historic Park, 2400 London Ranch Road, Glen Ellen

Admission: $49-$144

Information: 877-424-1414, extension 1; transcendencetheatre.org

Evan Ruggiero can’t wait to perform in this weekend’s “Gala Celebration” on the outdoor stage at Jack London State Historic Park, and he’s not shy about the one thing that people tend to notice about him first.

“You’ll hear me sing. You’ll see me dance. And you can’t miss me. I’m the guy with one leg,” he said.

This man was born to dance and nothing will stop him.

Ruggiero, 28, now a New Yorker, began dancing at the age of 5, and at 10, he was accepted into the famed New Jersey Tap Ensemble, but at age 19, during his sophomore year at Montclair State University, he was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a rare bone cancer, in his right leg. After nine surgeries attempting to save the leg, it was finally amputated. He underwent 16 months of chemotherapy, and ultimately, 18 months after the surgery, and just two days after being fitted with the prosthetic he calls his “peg leg,” he was tap dancing again.

And not just dancing, but progressing and performing professionally. In 2013, he got his bachelor of fine arts degree in musical theater from Montclair in New Jersey.

“I didn’t feel like the door was closed,” he recalled. “I always thought I’d keep going to auditions and trying out for shows.”

In 2014, he was cast in his first professional theater job with Transcendence Theatre Co., presenter of the “Broadway Under the Stars” concert series at Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen, and he has returned to perform there several times since then.

In 2018 in New York, Ruggiero received a Drama Desk nomination for best actor in a musical, another nomination for the Chita Rivera Award for best dancer in a musical, and was awarded a Clive Barnes Award in Theatre, all for his portrayal of Tom Jones in the 2017 Off-Broadway production of “Bastard Jones,” based on the 1749 Henry Fielding novel “Tom Jones.”

“We had total inclusion and diversity in the cast and company for that show — black, white, Asian, Hispanic, disabled and transgender, and we put all of that into a cast of 10,” Ruggiero said. “We got a lot of press, and a good review from the New York Times.”

And earlier this year, the dancer performed alongside Grammy Award-winning singer, songwriter and actor Jason Mraz at a special VIP event preceding the singer’s Madison Square Garden show in New York.

During one of his visits to Transcendence in Sonoma two years ago, Ruggiero participated in the company’s after-school program at the Boys & Girls clubs in Sonoma Valley.

“I always love working with kids because they’re so open and honest,” he said. “They ask me, ‘What happened to your leg?’ They call me Iron Man and Robotman.”

A one-legged tap dancer is bound to attract attention, and Ruggiero accepts that gracefully, but makes it clear in all show business relationships that he’s a professional artist, not an oddity.

“I don’t want to be treated as a novelty,” he explained. “If I feel like I’m getting those vibes, I’d probably decide to put my time and energy elsewhere. As an actor in the disabled community, I try to talk about inclusion with producers and directors.”

If You Go

What: “Gala Celebration”

When: preshow picnicking at 5 p.m., show at 7:30 p.m. Friday through Saturday, Sept. 6-8

Where: Jack London State Historic Park, 2400 London Ranch Road, Glen Ellen

Admission: $49-$144

Information: 877-424-1414, extension 1; transcendencetheatre.org

Never confining himself solely to tap, Ruggiero has a broad training in dance, but some styles work better for him now than others.

“I did tap, jazz, ballet and modern. I was a dance competition kid growing up, and I was well-rounded,” he said. “I didn’t do hip hop, and I probably wouldn’t want to do that now. I was called for a ballet audition, and it wasn’t great, so I probably won’t be doing that.”

Like athletes, dancers strive to keep their bodies fit and young, and in Ruggiero’s case, the process is complicated.

“I feel a little weathered,” he said. “The chemo knocked me out for a while at first. Some days, I feel closer to 40. So, I got into physical therapy, chiropractic and massage, to try to focus on my overall health.”

When he dances, Ruggiero uses his “peg leg,” a fairly simple metal prosthetic, but for everyday life, including such tasks as climbing stairs, he wears a more complicated model, outfitted with microcomputers and sensors, he said.

He can do some things that most dancers can’t: “I can spin my leg in circles.”

Ruggiero reports that audiences are on his side wherever he goes.

“The audiences always really life me up, and the responses are different around the world,” he said. “In Egypt, I got to perform for the president of Egypt and he was serious and dignified, but everyone else was losing their minds. In Germany, the audience was more reserved, but in Mexico, they went wild.”

Having come this far, the dancer sees no reason to stop now.

“I have the kind of personality and desire to try everything,” he said. “My goal would be to perform on Broadway. That would be the ultimate.”

You can reach Staff Writer Dan Taylor at 707-521-5243 or dan.taylor@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @danart

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