Entertainment & Arts

Paralympic ceremony dancer Dave Toole hits new heights

Dave Toole in the Paralympic Opening Ceremony
Image caption Dave Toole flew above the stadium during the Paralympic Opening Ceremony

Dancer and actor Dave Toole, who lost his legs as a child, had a starring role in the London 2012 Paralympic Games Opening Ceremony. Now his story is being told in his home city of Leeds.

If you were one of the 146 million people who watched the London 2012 Paralympics Opening Ceremony, you may remember Dave Toole.

He performed a haunting solo dance on his arms before taking off and taking part in an "aerial ballet" high above the stadium.

"I had to look at the girl who played Miranda, who was coming up the other way," he recalls. "We'd been told, 'Don't smile, don't react'.

"We just wanted to laugh because it was the most insane thing we've ever done. But we couldn't because the world's watching."

'Crazy' moments

Eleven million people out of the global TV audience of 146 million were in the UK, giving Channel 4 its highest ratings for a decade. And then there were the 80,000 in the stadium itself.

Toole has been a professional dancer for 20 years, but the Paralympics were on a different scale to anything he had done before.

"You have these moments - you're waiting to go on and you've got Sir Ian McKellen on one side and Stephen Hawking on the other, and you go, this is just crazy," he says.

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Media captionWatch Dave Toole dancing and speaking on BBC Breakfast in April 2012

The 48-year-old was born with sacral agenesis, meaning his legs did not develop properly, so were amputated when he was 18 months old.

After university, he spent nine years working in a post office in his home city of Leeds. "It was basically sitting at a desk all day typing postal codes as letters flew by you. Very boring."

But his life changed when a friend, knowing he was "a bit of a show-off", passed him a leaflet for a dance workshop.

He went along and "just did things that would seem natural to me".

"I got around on my hands at home, standing on one hand to reach up to turn lights on and off and things, so I used things like that in performing," he says.

"It looked amazing, but to me it was no big deal. But it looked good. Things like that worked in my favour and I never questioned it because I seemed to be good at something."

Relieved to escape the routine of the Post Office, Toole jumped at the chance to join the Candoco dance company and describes the seven years he spent touring the world with them as "like being in a rock group".

He became known for routines in which he would move, swing and balance on his arms, often playfully exploiting his stature, not restricted by it.

"People have said they've watched me and it's like I'm weightless and I can fly," he says. "A lot of dancers aim for that and don't necessarily get it. I don't necessarily aim for it but it's just there in the way I move. It's just what I do.

"That's the way I'm built with my centre of gravity. Everything works in my favour. Every dancer brings something to the table. I just bring something different."

Image caption Dave Toole (right) tells the story of 1930s performer Johnny Eck In his new show

Toole has also worked as an actor, and his acting is to the fore in his new show. He tells the story of 1930s US performer Johnny Eck - who also lost his legs through sacral agenesis - while Toole's own story is told in parallel.

The Johnny Eck and Dave Toole Show is being staged at Leeds Royal Armouries by the Slung Low theatre company as part of the West Yorkshire Playhouse's annual experimental Transform season.

For Eck, the only place he could use his natural performing talent was in a freak show. That led to a part in 1932 cult classic film Freaks and a stint wearing bird costumes in Tarzan films.

"He came before any of us and he opened the door for the other disabled people who are out and about and performing now, so he deserves the respect," Toole says.

"So the show is about me trying to tell his story and other people trying to tell my story, because I don't blow my trumpet about the things I've done."

Toole does things other dancers cannot - but is he comfortable with the fact he attracts attention precisely because he is different?

"After 20 years, anybody who actually knows who I am and does come to a performance, they've already gone past all that," he replies. "They know what they're getting.

"In the early days, certainly with the Candoco stuff, people were coming because it was billed as integrated dance - disability and non-disabled - so we had to accept there was a novelty or curiosity value.

Image caption Toole's theatre credits include the Royal Shakespeare Company's I'll Be The Devil in 2008

"But after about a year or so, people started looking at the work rather than the make-up of the company. So we were treated as a serious company.

"That's pretty much what any disabled artist wants. We just want to be seen as an artist, not necessarily a disabled artist. You can't ignore the fact. I can't ignore the fact that you wear glasses, but that's not what you are.

"I am an actor or dancer who just happens to have a disability. That's not important to me. If it's important to other people there's not a lot I can do about that."

I ask whether he has every had any negative reactions to his performances.

"Not to my face," he replies. "I've read some bizarre reviews. I've been described as all kinds of things. I've been described as moving like a squirrel on ball bearings. Which was interesting.

"And also 'midget sized castle ghost'. Not necessarily negative. I find them quite amusing.

"If I ever write a biography I will call it Squirrel On Ball Bearings. That's the working title."

The Johnny Eck and Dave Toole Show is at the Royal Armouries, Leeds, until Saturday 27 April.

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