Dancing was George Velazquez's life. When Velazquez found out that his left leg had to be amputated, his spirit was crushed. He was a dancer. What would he do? Would he ever dance again? He was filled with despair.
Dancing was George Velazquez's life before August 1, 1994. He recalls watching proudly that night as his students won trophies and high praise in a local dance competition. After the show, Velazquez took the prizes back to the dance studio for his students. Returning to double-check the lock on a service door, he came face to face with a pickup truck. In an instant, his life was changed forever.
When Velazquez found out that his left leg had to be amputated, his spirit was crushed. He was a dancer. What would he do? Would he ever dance again? He was filled with despair.
For months after the amputation, Velazquez suffered from depression. He gained a lot of weight and his body was bloated and out of shape. Velazquez realized that he could no longer relate to dancers who thought of their bodies as sturdy, agile machines (as he once had). The reality of missing a piece of the machine that has been stretched and conditioned to perfection is unfathomable to a dancer.
But George Velazquez didn't stay down for long. The turning point came when he discovered that his students still needed him. He was their teacher. He couldn't be stuck in a bed or a wheelchair. One day a student told him to "Get off your butt and at least try!" Determined to regain his perspective, as well as his place in the studio, Velazquez took the student's advice to heart.
Velazquez remembers the day he tried on one of his very expensive dance costumes and couldn't button it up! That was the beginning of his courageous comeback. Something inside of him was awakened at that momentum determination to dance in that costume again.
Armed with newspaper clippings, information from prosthetists and educational resources from the Amputee Coalition, Velazquez educated himself on life as an amputee. He asked questions, determined ways to cope and studied his options for a prosthesis. To cope with his loss, Velazquez found comfort and understanding in peer support meetings with other amputees.
The word "amputee" made him cringe, so he looked at it from a different angle, creating words to live by with each letter in the word:
Mind over matter
Pursuing my dreams
Understanding my problem
Educating myself and others
Enjoying life - I'm still me!
Velazquez's physical recovery was accelerated by his years of dance training. "Knowing where my center of balance is and having danced for so many years helped make my ability to walk on a prosthesis much easier," he says. "The more in condition I get, the tighter the skin gets around the bone." His recovery was truly remarkable.
Velazquez gives much of the credit for his swift recovery to Stephen Schulte, CP, at Pro-Care Prosthetics in Swanee, Georgia. "Stephen was there for the casting of my first prosthesis and has watched me dance through socket after socket," Velazquez says, laughing. "Sockets are supposed to last up to three years; I need a replacement every six to eight months." Velazquez also credits his prosthetist for his willingness to be available for him to literally keep him on his feet.
Since his amputation at age 42, Velazquez has continued to excel in dance. Today he is the owner, coach and choreographer of The Show Stoppers
Dance Company, Inc., Amputees in Motion in Atlanta, GA. Velazquez currently trains 14 able-bodied dancers, six wheelchair dancers and three amputees of various ages and levels of ability.
His theatrical credits are impressive. He was an original cast member in the long-running
Broadway show A Chorus Line and performed as the opening act for Comedian Buddy Hackett. Velazquez has also choreographed and danced in several major motion pictures, and has won more nationwide dance competitions than we have room to list.
He studied theatre arts at Juilliard in New York City, one of the most prestigious schools for music, dance and drama in the world. He has learned from the best in the business: dance professionals at the Fred Astaire, Arthur Murray and Dale Dance Studios, the Jo Jo Smith School for Modern Jazz, the Huntington School for the Performing Arts and the Henry LeTang Tap Dance Academy.
He competes against able-bodied professional dancers and has captured one second-place and two third-place prizes. Velazquez also won three of the prestigious Golden Apple Awards for excellence in teaching in one year, a first in the history of the U.S. Ballroom Championships.
Despite his tremendous success in dance, Velazquez believes there is much more he can do in his lifetime. "I want to be able to make a difference in somebody's life," he says. "Your life is over when you're six feet underground.
"New amputees are frightened. They need reassurance and understanding.
Everything you do for others comes back to you," he insists, like having compassion and seeing the talents and the good in people. Velazquez dedicates much of his energy to helping people understand these words of wisdom and motivation by his example and his teaching.
Velazquez stresses that peer support is an incomparable tool in recovering from amputation of a limb. "Amputees have a bond. I've met some extraordinary people since my amputation, from all walks of life; we share so much." Emotions and perspective are affected just as much as physical abilities, and Velazquez works as a motivational speaker to help amputees learn more about their disability.
Recovering amputees also have to find an outlet to release their emotions and fears, no matter how closed and impassive they were before the amputation, Velazquez adds. He recalls talking to an angry, frustrated man he met at a recent peer group meeting. "After talking to him for a while and feeling his pain, I told him to put his arms on my shoulders. When he did, I gave him a much-needed hug. He just stood there and cried. Then I teased him saying, 'Don't tell your buddies about this,' and we had a good laugh together."
Velazquez has choreographed much of the dance entertainment for the Amputee Coalition Annual Meetings at Atlanta in 1996 and in Chicago in 1998, taking the time to teach a few amputees to dance. Last June in Chicago, he worked with a woman who is a bilateral BK. "She hadn't danced in over three years and she had great rhythm," he exclaimed. "She was having such a great time that I got goosebumps just knowing that I had touched someone."
Velazquez will be sure to be on the dance floor at the Amputee Coalition 1999 meeting in Reno.
To provide other amputees with the same kind of kinship that he has experienced, Velazquez started Captain Pegleg George Cruises, which set sail on November 7th. "The idea is to have fun. It's a support group at sea with fun, sun and dance."
The cruises cater to amputees, offering dance lessons and fitness, running and gait analysis clinics. Although learning the Electric Slide, the Swing or the Electric Cha-Cha from a pro is exciting, Velazquez says the most rewarding part of the cruise is the chance to make connections with other amputees.
Velazquez uses his talents as a dancer to educate amputees, but just recently he tapped into another way to entertain and educate. A fictional novel based on his experiences from weight gain to dance competitions is in the works. Tentatively titled Repercussion, Velazquez hopes the novel will inspire amputees while showing the realities of depression and diminished self-image that are part of the return to personal well-being.
George Velazquez has faced the music of each stage of the recovery process and for an encore he has emerged a whole person once again. His philosophy is simple and unpretentious: "Somehow, someway, things happen for a reason," he says, "I just work with what I have."