Home Art & Culture David Toole, Disabled Dancer With Grace in His Hands, Dies at 56

David Toole, Disabled Dancer With Grace in His Hands, Dies at 56

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David Toole was 26 when he found relief from his postal work in Britain in an unexpected way: as a novice dancer at a workshop, where he showed intuitive grace and athleticism while performing on his hands. His legs had been amputated in childhood.

“In warm-ups, he was shy, quite quiet,” Charlotte Darbyshire, who also danced at the workshop, said in a phone interview, recalling the workshop in Leeds, in northern England, in 1991. “But very quickly, he discarded his wheelchair, and was more comfortable on his hands. We were stunned, really. He was an incredible mover, with great balance and a natural gift for performance.”

Inspired, Mr. Toole told his mother about his newfound ambition.

“Can I just remind you,” she was said to have replied, “that you don’t have any legs?”

Undeterred, he became a leading disabled dancer in Britain performing with various troupes and achieved global renown as a featured dancer in the opening ceremony of the 2012 Paralympic Games in London.

Mr. Toole died on Oct. 16 at a hospital in Leeds. He was 56 and had been ill for the past year. His sister, Cathy Powell, said the cause was cardiac arrest.

Ms. Powell — who lived next door to her brother in Leeds — survives him along with her daughter, Mary, and son, Jack. Jack once created a poster for his uncle that said, “What a Difference a Dave Makes.”

Mr. Toole had immense hands and strong arms that allowed him to walk, roll, leap and jump across a stage with tremendous physicality and nuance, on his own or with partners.

“His body was so eloquent,” Alan Lane, artistic director of the Slung Low theater company, with whom Mr. Toole performed, said in an interview. “There was a quality of wonder, too. We took a show to a South African township, and a young lad thought Dave was a wizard — that what he was doing was a magic trick, that nobody else could move like that.”

David Vincent Toole was born in Leeds on July 31, 1964. His father, Terry, was a carpenter who performed music in pubs with his brother Douglas. His mother, Jean (Dawson) Toole, was an auxiliary maternity nurse and home care worker.

Dave was born with sacral agenesis, a congenital condition in which the lowest portion of the spine that forms the joint with the hips fails to develop. Severely malformed, his legs were amputated when he was 18 months old.

When he was 3 or 4, he experienced one of the first of many indignities he would feel as a disabled person when he was placed naked on a table as several doctors stared at him.

“I have a vague memory of being stood on a platform, being pointed at and talked about,” he told The Times of London in 2012. “It made me feel like the Elephant Man.”

Despite being physically different, Ms. Powell said in an interview, nothing fazed him as a child.

“I remember him using his arms to swing under the dining room table,” she said. “He’d have a skateboard or whatever. He wasn’t going to be left out.”

He attended a school for children with disabilities and later Park Lane College in Leeds before taking a six-month computing course at the University of Leeds. A job at the Royal Mail — Britain’s post office — typing postal codes felt like a dead-end from which he might never escape.

“I went to work, got home in the early afternoon, got drunk, went to sleep, woke up, got drunk some more, went to sleep again, woke up, went back to work,” he told The Yorkshire Post in 2013.

A former teacher gave him a leaflet promoting the dance workshop. Despite his initial reluctance to attend, once there he recognized that he had found his future.

The workshop evolved into the London-based Candoco Dance Company, which integrates disabled and nondisabled dancers. Mr. Toole attended a dance school, quit the Royal Mail and performed around the world with Candoco for seven years.

“Dancing with him, he was so totally alive,” said Ms. Darbyshire, Candoco’s artistic director.

After his time at Candoco, Mr. Toole played one of two street performers at a seaside resort in the DV8 Physical Theater’s stage production of “Can We Afford This?,” which had its premiere at the Sydney Olympics arts festival in 2000.

Four years later, it was adapted into a film short, “The Cost of Living.” In one scene, Mr. Toole spots a group of female dancers through the window of a studio, hops off his wheelchair, enters uninvited and engages in an intimate duet with one of the women. In another scene, he is followed over a grassy hill by a group of able-bodied dancers, who imitate his idiosyncratic way of hand-walking — a dramatic way to illustrate how Mr. Toole navigated his disability.

Lloyd Newson, who founded DV8 and directed the play and the film, said in a statement that Mr. Toole had “personified the concept of ‘differently able,’ or perhaps more appropriately, ‘exceptionally able.’”

“David,” he added, “made you marvel at what a body, his body, could say and do.”

As an actor Mr. Toole also played a beggar in the film “Amazing Grace” (2006), a historical drama about the British slave trade, and a character called Man with No Legs in the HBO series “Rome” in 2007.

He had a more ambitious role in “The Johnny Eck and Dave Toole Show,” a stage production for the Slung Low company in 2013 held outdoors at the Royal Armories in Leeds. As a dancer and actor, he played Mr. Eck (1911-1991), a sideshow performer born without the lower half of his body because of sacral agenesis. Other performers narrated Mr. Toole’s story because he was too modest to tell it.

Mr. Toole admired Mr. Eck, telling the BBC in 2013: “He came before any of us and he opened the door for the other disabled people who are out and about and performing now.”

Mr. Toole seldom bragged about his achievements, even his role at the 2012 Paralympics.

“He didn’t tell us how big a part he was playing in the ceremony,” his mother told The Daily Telegraph soon after his performance at the event. “He just said, ‘You’ll see me’ and mentioned there would be a bit of flying and he would be in it for about three minutes.”

After a balletic solo accompanied by Birdy singing “Bird Gerhl,” Mr. Toole soared above a packed Olympic Stadium on wires in an aerial pas de deux.

His family watched on television.

“It was magical,” said his mother, who died this year. “We were just blown away by it.”

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