ANCHORAGE — When she was in eighth grade, Taylor Haines had the moxie to try out for the East Anchorage High School dance company. That meant an audition in front of a crowded studio of 60 or 70 older dancers, a big deal for a middle schooler.
Her dance teacher, Ariel Graham, remembers the day.
What stood out was not the girl’s prosthetic leg but her confidence.
“She started dancing, and it was like, ‘Wow,’” Graham said.
As a child, Taylor never thought about what she couldn’t do. She was an active girl in an athletic family. Despite missing her leg below the knee on her left side, she ran, skied and played soccer.
It wasn’t until she discovered dance that she found her passion. She loved the way dancers moved across the stage, telling a story without words, and began lessons at age 8.
Now an East senior, Taylor is a standout performer in the student dance company, Dance Contempo, and a captain chosen by her peers.
Preparing for her seventh concert with the ensemble, she rehearses every day, fitted with a prosthetic left leg that nearly reaches her knee.
A visitor to the rehearsal studio would hardly notice. She leaps and whirls as well as anyone in the studio. Better, many say.
“You can teach students dance steps and technique, but some dancers really have a lot of heart,” Graham said.
At home after rehearsal, sometimes the dancing continues in the kitchen with her parents as partners.
“I just see this beautiful, accomplished young lady who’s in high school, who’s worked hard her whole life to dance,” her mother, Betsy Haines, said. “And she loves it and it shows.”
Elizabeth Wilson, Betsy’s partner and Taylor’s other mom, remembers her first moments with newborn Taylor. She held a firm grip on her finger and opened her eyes wide.
Wilson noticed something was different with the couple’s second child. Her leg, she thought, looked withered.
Haines remembers Wilson counting fingers and toes.
“Ten digits on the hands, and she was doing toes and counted nine,” Haines said.
Doctors placed the newborn on a tiny backboard and sent her for further examinations. Wilson said she managed to avoid feeling panicked, convinced the problems were not catastrophic by the brief moments mother and baby had bonded.
Eventually, an orthopedic doctor put a name to it: fibular hemimelia. For Taylor it meant she had no fifth toe — she was missing bones in her foot and had no fibula, the lower leg bone that connects with the ankle and provides the stability to be upright.
Though the condition would impact Taylor’s life, Betsy remembers being grateful.
“For us, it’s not a life-threatening issue, one,” she said. “So, we were very fortunate that way.”
Still, Haines and Wilson faced a difficult decision regarding how to move forward. One option was a limb-lengthening procedure. It would involve the use of a cumbersome external device Taylor would have to wear for years. Bones in her foot would need to be fused and her range of motion would forever be limited. This option, it was explained, was for looks.
Alternatively, they were told, Taylor’s lower leg could be surgically removed in a way that would allow their daughter to use a prosthetic device to walk, run and jump.
For Haines, who was an Olympic cross-country skier at the 1980 Lake Placid Games and a three-time All-American during her collegiate career, the decision was simple. The couple hoped to raise active children who appreciated an active lifestyle. They scheduled the amputation before her first birthday.
Haines doesn’t remember her daughter missing a beat from the time she learned to use a tiny prosthesis at age 1, a device they keep as a memento. In fact, Taylor rarely slowed down, whether she was wearing the leg or not.
The family has always adapted, they said, never feeling like it was more than a small issue and hoping to raise their daughter to feel the same. Wilson remembers adapting a tricycle with a block on one pedal.
“We just never felt like it was a huge problem,” Wilson said.
If Taylor’s mothers were worried that she’d grow up feeling different from the other kids, one moment in elementary school eased concerns.
As a second-grader, Taylor agreed to be interviewed by older students who were researching disabilities. Wilson sat in, watching Taylor grow increasingly confused by the questions.
“Finally she says, ‘Well, I don’t understand. I’m not disabled.’ And she looks at me and says, ‘Mom, tell them I’m not disabled,’ “ Wilson said laughing.
“And I said, ‘Well, you know, Taylor, you’re not disabled. But some people who are missing a leg are,’ “ Wilson said. “That was a really defining moment for me.”
The device itself even provided occasional moments of levity.
Taylor recalled her prosthesis was once briefly taken away as punishment — a reasonable consequence, considering she had taken it off and thrown it at her sister in the backseat of the car.
In third-grade gym class, the prosthesis was her secret weapon in kickball.
“If I planted with my right foot and kicked with my left, it was just a bullet,” she said.
Perhaps it had shock value too. In another kickball game, the leg came off during a kick and went flying across the gym. She hopped to first base on one foot, amid gasps of her classmates.
On vacation to Hawaii, she was ordered to keep tall tales to herself on the beach. No telling other kids it was bitten off by a shark.
But it hasn’t always been easy.
“When she got a little older... the kids would stare, and that would bother her,” Haines said. “That was hard.”
Only a few times has wearing a prosthetic leg made her feel like an outsider, Taylor said. Like when her bulky prosthesis didn’t fit into skinny jeans. Or when her foot, at a rigid right angle, wouldn’t allow her to wear high heels. Taylor remembers her friends looking stylish while she wore sweats.
“I wanted my legs to look pretty,” she said. “I got over it.”
Then she got busy. In addition to dance, she has juggled French language competitions, cheer squad, tutoring in math and working a part-time job while in high school. Twice, she has joined Wilson, a volunteer for the International Medical Alliance of Tennessee, on medical missions abroad and is planning on a third.
At age 14, after the Haiti earthquake, Taylor gathered most of the prosthetic legs she had outgrown and donated them to a charity so the hardware could be reused.
When Taylor joined the East High dance ensemble, Graham asked her if there was anything she could do to accommodate her. She’d never worked with a dance student who used a prosthesis.
That’s almost never been necessary. Taylor’s amputation is below a functioning knee, restricting her much less than would be the case if the amputation was above the knee.
But there are limitations.
Flexed feet are the foundation of ballet — the plié and releve. Ballet dancers are instructed to point their toes on day one and nearly every day after. Taylor does what she can on one foot.
“It does hold her back in dance,” Wilson said. “But she’s going to dance. That’s just who she is.”
Graham suspects Taylor has influenced her peers as much with how she carries herself as how she performs. She’s never shy to remove her leg, never asked for a costume that hid anything and doesn’t hesitate to answer questions, Graham said.
If anything, it’s off-putting when other students aren’t direct with curiosity, Taylor said. They’ll sometimes stammer and apologize and tiptoe around the topic.
“Just ask me,” Taylor said she’ll say. “I don’t mind.”
For a body-conscious group of dancers and teenagers, self-assuredness like that can be contagious.
Anthony Squalls, an East senior and Taylor’s co-captain for Dance Contempo, said he’s impressed Taylor never seems to break stride when hearing comments about her leg.
“She never lets it faze her. She never lets it bring her down, which is pretty phenomenal for me because I would be pretty emotional about it,” he said.
“Even if she doesn’t realize it consciously, she’s not letting this thing hold her back at all,” Graham said. “And that’s a great metaphor for anyone who has something that maybe society would consider a disadvantage.”
Garden of Eden
Four days before their fall concert, Contempo dancers rehearsed to an empty auditorium.
Ten dancers swept from stage left to right and back again, wearing canvas-colored dresses. In the piece, choreographed by Taylor and titled “In the Beginning,” the dancers formed the shape of a tree, then dissolved into movement that highlighted several dancers individually.
Taylor is not featured. She doesn’t like it when choreographer-dancers showcase themselves.
As fluid as her movement was, Taylor’s prosthesis might not be noticeable at all if stage lights didn’t occasionally glint off her titanium ankle.
In her final year with Dance Contempo, Taylor said she has only recently begun to doubt herself.
“Now, when I’m getting older, when things are getting more difficult or more competitive, I start to think that I can’t compete with everyone who has two feet,” she said.
Wilson and Betsy Haines try not to miss the chance to watch their daughter dance.
Wilson said she used to roll her eyes when people would single out Taylor for praise in overcoming her challenges. Everyone has something they’re dealing with, she’d think. Taylor’s is just more visible than most.
But her opinion is changing. Now, when she watches Taylor dance, she sees a young woman with empathy for others, someone who doesn’t know how far she has come, and a teen with her head screwed on as tight as her foot.
Wilson has come to believe those are inspirational qualities. Maybe that’s the result of growing up a little different, or maybe it isn’t, but she doesn’t roll her eyes anymore.
“She is the perfect child to have a physical difference, to be out there showing people.”
At home, Taylor showed off her latest foot, realistic-looking and flexed, and the sparkly white high heels that she brought with it in mind. She wondered out loud if technology would one day allow her to point her toes with her mind. That would be super cool, she said.
“But I have no idea if that’s ever going to be a thing,” she said with a shrug and a smile.