IMAGE: Nathalie Calderon
Julie Calderon
Nathalie Calderon of Apopka, Fla., was born with a birth defect that resulted in the amputation of her lower right leg, but that hasn't kept her from dancing.
By MSNBC.com Health editor
msnbc.com
updated 9/20/2006 3:40:50 PM ET 2006-09-20T19:40:50

It was just a tiny misstep during a dance class routine. But it was enough to cause Nathalie Calderon’s right foot to spin backward 180 degrees.

“My teacher nearly fainted,” said Nathalie.

But the determined Central Florida girl just asked for a screwdriver — and with a few twists, her foot was again righted.

Nathalie, who was born without the lower part of a tibia in her right leg, wears a prosthetic, something she hadn’t bothered to mention to her dance instructor.

“It was so embarrassing,” she said, remembering that day several years ago.

Now 15, Nathalie has moved on to another instructor, Georgio Fagan of Georgio’s American Dance Centre in Lake Mary, Fla., where she’s part of the senior company. She’s won three scholarships this year for her dancing, has earned the respect of her peers and the adoration of audiences when she performs hip hop, tap and ballet.

The attention is for her dancing, not for her disability, Fagan wants to make clear.

“She’s amazing when she performs. She totally draws you in,” he said. “(On stage) that soul of hers just blossoms. It’s almost like she was given a leg.”

Nathalie was born with a rare birth defect called tibial hemimelia. She had 10 fingers and 10 toes, but her right tibia stopped growing at the shin. Doctors amputated her lower leg when she was a year old.

As a little girl, she prayed at the dinner table for a leg so she could be like everyone else, remembers her mother, Julie Calderon.

For years, Julie, a nurse, cried all the way to and from Nathalie’s doctor’s appointments.

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“But when she was 5, I said to myself, ‘You need to get over it. I want her to be able to do whatever she wants.’”

In preschool, when kids asked about her prosthetic, Nathalie told them her story. “My mom always said, ‘That’s how Jesus made you.’"

But as she got older, she grew more more self-conscious. She worked at learning to walk without a limp and took to wearing pants to hide her prosthetic. Unless she told people, no one knew.

‘I want to dance’
She did harbor a dream though. She had always admired the way the music moved her older cousin, Vanity, a dancer in New York. One day, Nathalie had something to tell her mother: “I want to dance.”

“I said, (sigh) OK,” said Julie, who wondered if her daughter had picked an insurmountable challenge.

At 13, Nathalie started taking dance classes at Georgio's American Dancer Centre. As she embarked on her new passion, she focused on learning the moves, not mentioning her prosthetic foot to her instructor.

When Fagan posted a sign that his dance studio was going to be forming an apprentice company, Nathalie and her mom met with him to see what areas she’d need to improve in to qualify. When he suggested more tap and ballet, her mother intervened.

“I said, ‘She can’t do tap or ballet.’ He said ‘Why?’ and she showed him her leg.”

“I had no idea. I was blown away,” remembers Fagan. “And mind you, I’d been teaching her for eight months.”

‘As good as people with two legs’
Within a month, Nathalie got a letter saying she’d been accepted into the company.

“Georgio said, ‘You can be as good as these people with two legs.’ … I was smiling for two months.”

Soon, Fagan had Nathalie leaping and turning on her artificial leg. Today, as a featured dancer in GADC’s senior company, she performs in front of thousands as she leaps, pirouettes and glides as the music carries her. All three of the dance center’s annual shows have multiple performances that often sell out.

On stage, even at only 5 feet 2 inches tall with her long, ebony-colored hair swept up, Nathalie stands out as one of the dancers with the most rhythm and grace. She often looks as if she can’t help but smile.

“She even does tap,” Julie said. “Sometimes that leg doesn’t sound the same, but she does it.”

Her current prosthetic was specifically designed with more flexibility for dancing. When she tried it on, she burst into a vigorous dance routine, even landing one-legged leaps on her new prosthetic.

“We got a little scared there,” joked Bryan Sinnott, who has designed and fitted Nathalie’s prosthetics for the past five years at Shriners Hospitals for Children in Tampa, Fla. “We always try to go to the next level with her. … In her mind, there is no goal she cannot achieve.”

Nathalie says her latest prosthetic works great — but she has one complaint: “Oh, I can’t wear flip flops now!” she exclaimed when she saw her new foot for the first time and realized it has fused toes.

Nathalie dreams of someday being able to go into the ballet point position on her prosthetic foot, but its inflexible shape won’t allow it. Her mom’s search for someone to build a foot that can has turned up empty — likely due to lack of demand.

“I’ve always wanted to go on point even though it hurts,” Nathalie said. “It’s the most beautiful thing.”

Dancing through the pain
Dancing doesn’t come without a cost. Nathalie’s birth defect causes her right knee to pop out of place frequently during class and sometimes she gets blisters from where her prosthetic rubs. Her mom knows it must hurt, but Nathalie downplays it.

IMAGE: Nathalie Calderon
Julie Calderon
Nathalie Calderon wears a specially designed prosthetic on her lower right leg that is strong enough for her to land on.
“It’s just a regular thing for me,” she said.

As much as she loves to dance, she’s had another goal since she was a little girl spending hours in doctor’s offices: to be a pediatrician. To prepare for medical school, she takes advanced placement math and science classes at Apopka (Fla.) High School and maintains a 4.2 grade point average.

She’s also learning how to drive and choreograph her own dances to Beyonce, Nelly Furtado and her other favorite singers — occasionally at the same time.

“Sometimes something will come on the radio and I’ll start dancing and my mom’s like ‘Keep your hands on wheel!,’” she said.

But she can't help it. When she's dancing, “there are no words to describe how I feel," Nathalie said.

"It’s so fun on stage you have so much adrenaline and the lights … it’s just so fun.”

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