Break dancing attracts crowds. There’s something fascinating about watching people flip in the air in a controlled way that pushes their limits. It tends to get an audience cheering. The b-boying crew ILL-Abilities sometimes gets an unusual response out their audience though. Sometimes their audience cries.
It’s not because ILL-Abilities are bad at what they do. Quite the opposite. People cry because the members of ILL-Abilities—currently celebrating their fifth anniversary with a Canadian tour—are so good at what they do.
In the b-boying world, some of the best dancers, or even whole crews, merge to form super crews. Montreal-born Luca “Lazylegz” Patuelli decided he wanted to form a super crew of dancers with disabilities. He came up with the idea of ILL-Abilities. Patuelli started the five-member group in 2007. Since then, the group has evolved from a b-boying group to an educational movement, shattering misconceptions surrounding the limitations of people with disabilities.
“The thing is, at that same time (that I was forming ILL-Abilities), I was getting into motivational speaking,” explains Patuelli. “And I was realizing that as I shared my story with people, it was making a difference in peoples’ lives. I figured these guys have the same inspirational message.
“I just told them this is what we’re doing. Follow me. And what’s so amazing is they believe in it and I can see the difference that all the members are making.”
Patuelli, 27, was born with arthrogryposis, a rare muscle disorder that limits motion in the joints. It primarily affects his legs, so he uses crutches to walk around. When it comes to dancing, he incorporates his crutches into the moves, creating his own style. “Sometimes I face insecurities about not being able to accomplish certain moves because of my physical limitations,” says Patuelli. “But at the same time, that challenges me to reinvent or adapt a move I see and do it my own way. It’s a challenge, but it’s a fun challenge.”
Redouan “Redo” Ait Chitt, an ILL-Abilities member from Holland, was born with no right hip, a shorter right arm and leg, no right elbow joint, and only two fingers on his right hand, and three fingers on his left hand. He says dancing not only gives him confidence, but allows him to change peoples’ initial perception that he can’t do something because of his disability. “I basically changed that whole thing by doing something that other people really can’t do,” explained Ait Chitt, 22. “People around me started to believe in me.”
This much was evident from Ait Chitt’s first time dancing with ILL-Abilities. During his first show with the crew in Sweden, Ait Chitt noticed that audience members were crying. “People came up to me after the show and said, ‘You guys just changed my life after watching your performance.’ You can have such a huge impact on people just by dancing.”
The crew has since then done tours in Montreal, Toronto, Edmonton, Halifax, and Quebec City. Internationally, they’ve performed in the U.S., France, Holland, Sweden, the U.K., Japan, and Hong Kong. However, the members of ILL-Abilities have noticed a lot of change over the course of their tours. The crew is no longer just about dancing, but pushing limits and educating people on the abilities of people with disabilities.
“It’s changed from just a crew, until last year, I think we became a movement,” says crew member, Tommy Ly. He says the crew is educating, “Not only people with disabilities, as we had first believed it would, but also regular people just believing that we’re all the same.”
Ly, a 26-year-old from San Francisco, California, had been break dancing for about two years before he was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a malignant bone tumour, in his right leg. Ly was still in high school. After chemotherapy, the doctors gave him a choice: amputation or prosthetic implants. Ly chose amputation, because there were potential complications with getting an implant, and if he chose amputation he could still do high impact activities. He continued dancing until he met Patuelli in 2007, and eventually joined ILL-Abilities.
The fourth member of ILL-Abilities, Sergio “Checho” Carvajal, was born with his feet at his knees. You may have assumed this means he has trouble getting around, but he uses his skateboard, named “Marcia,” to get from A to B. You might think his disability makes it extra hard to dance, but Carvajal, like the rest of the ILL-Abilities crew, can do dance moves most people can’t.
Growing up in Valdivia, Chile, Carvajal says it was especially difficult because people with disabilities weren’t accepted in the community. At the age of six, he was first exposed to break dancing when he saw his neighbours doing it. He says dancing has helped him discover life.
With Patuelli translating from Spanish, Carvajal said, “People with disabilities and people in general will face discrimination at one point in their lives, but they can’t let that hold them back. Break dancing gave me that escape. It told me I’m not disabled. I’m amazing. I’m incredible. And now when I walk into a battle, anywhere in the breaking dancing world, it’s not ‘That poor guy with a disability.’ It’s ‘Oh no! That’s Checho, don’t mess with him.’”
Jacob “Kujo” Lyons, the final ILL-Abilities member, was born with sensorineural hearing loss in his right ear, causing him to be completely deaf on that side. Hearing in his left ear has deteriorated on several occasions, from poorly performed surgery to an ear infection when he was four-years-old.
Lyons originally started out as a hip-hop dancer. He says as soon as he started to get kind of good, everyone started saying he was doing things wrong. “There was lots of friction. A lot of it stemmed from the hearing loss because I couldn’t hear the music in the same way they could. So I danced differently from everyone else by default. It led me to create my own style based on the way I heard the music, sometimes disconnected from the music.”
Each crew member has his own way to adapt moves and make them his own. In one YouTube clip, Patuelli pushes off his crutches from balancing in a handstand to flipping in the air and landing via somersault. The audience goes crazy. Some of the ILL-Abilities members can hang 90 degrees off of horizontal poles, parallel to the ground. Again, these guys can do things most people can’t.
The five members of ILL-Abilities have faced their share of challenges in life, but they have all found a way to make dancing their own. Now, as they tour the world inspiring others, they spread their message: “No excuses. No limits.”
“Whether it’s physical, whether it’s emotional, intellectual, financial, we all have some sort of challenge that we face,” says Patuelli. “But it’s that minute we create excuses for why we can’t do something, that’s where the real limitation comes in.
“The minute you try, the minute you do something — even if you have to adapt it — that’s when you say ‘Alright, I won’t limit myself.’”
Patuelli has noticed a change within the group since ILL-Abilities formed. They’ve all grown as speakers and by spreading their message. “It’s like watching your baby grow. Just seeing the differences in the past five years, from the first show we ever did until now.”
As amazing as their dancing is, there’s one more thing that makes this group stand out. It’s something that the audiences doesn’t always get to see — the infectious, positive atmosphere that the crew creates when they’re together.
When ILL-Abilities isn’t performing, the crew is a group of close friends, who rarely get to see each other in person unless they are on tour. They support each other. If anyone is feeling down, a crew member will be there to pick him up. With Patuelli translating, Carvajal said, “It’s like being with brothers, even though I didn’t grow up with them, and they’re from different countries. It’s like I’ve known them all my life.”
After a show in Toronto last December, Ben Li, a photographer, liked the crew so much he invited them to come back to his place for a photo shoot. The crew piled into their van, laughing and joking the whole way there, the air electric with post-show adrenaline.
As everyone poured out of the van into the parking garage, Li asked, “Does anyone need a hand with their stuff?”
“Yeah, and a leg would be nice,” said Lyons, with a grin.
The group proceeded upstairs for the photo shoot and spent the evening laughing at each other as they were one by one airbrushed with make up. While their dancing is amazing, the crew’s jokes about Ait Chitt’s Ken-doll appearance are truly limitless.
ILL-Abilities will be touring Canada this fall. Celebrate their five-year anniversary at NO LIMITS 3 (October 19-21, 2012) in Montreal, QC. It's a 3-day festival that including full crew dance battles, an improved and extended theatre show, and integrated dance workshops! Open to all ages, all abilities. Stay tuned to their Facebook page for more info.