My Way Your Way

Dance with Life


To Dance with More Freedom

Omae Koichi, Osaka Prefecture


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©You Sung Gil

Fourteen years ago, Omae Koichi was hit by a drunken driver, and lost his left leg from mid-calf down. It was the night before he was to go to Niigata to audition with a dance company he greatly admired. He did not allow the accident to make him give up on his dream, however. He faced a huge setback and deep despair, but he overcame them, and today he stands upon the stage as a professional dancer.

On the Eve of Fulfilling a Dream

I was in the ambulance, barely conscious with the pain. That's when the doctor said:"We're going to amputate your foot."
I thought, "How can he say something like that?" I couldn't understand, and I didn't want to understand. I was finally going to become a member of the Noism dance company led by my hero, Kanamori Jo.

I woke up. I looked at my leg. My left leg was shorter, and the area around my knee was swollen as big as a basketball. Excruciating pain was shooting through me. But all I could think of was: I have to go to Niigata. Even if I couldn't audition, I still needed to show I cared. I thought I could go in a wheelchair, even with blood staining my bandages. I was that determined.

At the time I still believed I could become a member of the Noism company. I was obsessed with reaching my goal, and my goal was to join Noism. Four months later, my prosthetic leg was finally ready. It felt like I was wearing ski shoes, but I had no problem walking. So, I went to the studio and tried to practice like always. My body, however, just wouldn't move the way I wanted it to. I was having trouble doing things I had once done quite easily. I would jump, then fall hard. This was far from what I had expected. After my fifth fall, when I realized I couldn't dance anymore that day, I broke down crying, on my hands and knees. That was the only time I cried in public. It was my first great failure, and the first time I felt overcome with despair.


Everyday-use prosthetic foot. This was the shape of his first prosthetic foot.
©You Sung Gil

Moving On


"The culmination of countless trial-and-error designs, obtaining various parts and ordering remakes over and over in the quest of the perfect prosthetic leg. Omae even dances ballet with this leg.
©You Sung Gil

Even then, all I was thinking of was how to join Noism. I'd pay any amount; I'd do anything I could: no matter what I would return to that world. Well, so I thought. The fastest way to my goal had disappeared, so I figured I had to think of a new route. If I could get my prosthetic as close as possible to a real leg, I might be able to dance as I had done before. I thought all I had to do was improve my prosthetic.

What hindered me was my feet from the ankle down. Dancing without my toes stretched out was unthinkable, but I decided I was going to give up all my preconceived notions of how things ought to be. I arrived at a decision: I had them remove the foot from my prosthetic for dancing.

A month later, I tried dancing with the footless prosthetic. It was easier. The dancing wasn't pretty, but I felt I was one step closer to my goal. After that, I ordered many parts and after studying how to combine this with that to make a better leg to dance with, I specified to the prosthetist what I wanted. I had quite a number of prosthetics made; it took eight years to develop the main model I use now.

Great Despair

Every year after the accident, I would audition for Noism. At first Kanamori supported me. But I think it was the fifth time I tried, he told me straight out: "You cannot become a Noism dancer."
It came as a great shock. I couldn't stop crying as I waited the two or three hours to catch the night bus for home. The only words that would come to my mind were, "What was the point of my whole life up to now?" The first time I saw Kanamori perform, I had fallen in love with that kind of dance. I had practiced hard for years to be part of that. But now my dream had been smashed. I felt as if my whole existence had been utterly denied.

Because of my leg, it was very difficult to keep dancing as long as the others. If I danced for a long time, I would suffer stabs of pain and be unable to keep going. I did not have the stamina to practice every day and participate in rehearsals like everyone else. It was clear that I could not keep up with the company. It was awkward, of course, to be dancing with a prosthetic, so I had been trying hard to be very cool, and dance as if I were just like all the others. But obviously, I am missing one foot. Kanamori's words finally made me understand that I would never return to that world as "a dancer with both feet."

So, what was I to do? I realized that all I could try was to invent my own kind of moves. I decided to turn myself around and focus on that. I would become a professional dancer who could attract audiences for what I was. That was my new goal. Well--it would be after the year or so it took me to accept what was awkward and uncool about myself! I had to move forward, coping with my inferiority complex and struggling to find my own moves.


©You Sung Gil

The Future Out of Sight


When dancing without my prosthetic, I wear this bowl-shaped cap. It's for what I call "Omae Dance."
©You Sung Gil

After the accident, I worked just to make a living for approximately a decade. Before the accident, I had been getting a pretty steady flow of ballet jobs, but without those gigs, I had no choice but to take whatever part-time jobs I could get. I did a lot of different things, most of them manual labor or requiring me to stand for long periods of time... I wasn't used to my prosthetic, and the projecting bone would rub against the prosthetic and hurt badly, forcing me to take it off and put it on time after time. I felt as though I was being pinched all the time. I was constantly in pain. I would practice dancing every day, but I could not even get myself to think about what the future might hold.

I Don't Need Pity

Sometimes I did get invitations to perform on stage. What was awful about that was, though the other dancers on stage got paid proper professional fees, all I got was a kind of honorarium. It was always quite small. A dancer with a prosthetic leg could amaze and delight an audience, but could not get paid. I did not want pity. I did not want people telling me how moving it was to see "my efforts as a disabled person." I wanted to be treated as a professional dancer.
Still, I thought, that must be because I still wasn't skillful enough. If I got better, I'd be paid the same amount. That's what I thought.

Believing in Yourself

The situation I was in was not easy, but I never ceased to believe that I would go forwards; that I would reach my goal. No matter what shape or form, what was important was to get there. So, I accepted that I had to change. This was not the kind of dancer I had been planning to become. It wasn't my choice. But, no matter what form it took, I was determined to become a professional dancer. So, I worked to improve my prosthetic, I studied how to move my body so as not to put strain on my leg while dancing, and I learned all sorts of dances. Street dancing, jazz dancing, modern dancing, traditional Japanese dancing... I even learned martial arts. I worked with great intensity. Because part of me still did not want to be seen as a dancer with a disability.

Dancing Without Prosthetics


In costume for Awake, the Voice Is Sounding. This is my favorite.
©You Sung Gil

My collaboration with ballet dancer Sato Noriko began around 2012. "How about dancing without the prosthetic?" she said, "I'll choreograph a dance for that." The dance was titled Canary Without a Leg. I had always thought that the individual movements were the most important aspect of dancing, but Sato emphasizes the overall story, or composition, of a piece.

Dancing without the prosthetic, it was easy to move, and above all I was free from pain. I felt as if I had much more potential for expression. She had given me a hint for projecting my own appeal as a dancer. Awake, the Voice Is Sounding, another piece I later performed without the prosthetic, became very much like "my" art. Now I even use different prosthetics depending on the piece I am performing. For instance, if I am playing a clown, I wear a prosthetic designed so my left leg is deliberately longer than my right leg.

A Goal that Is Close and Yet Far

Nowadays, not many people call me the dancer with the prosthetic. This is probably because, after training myself in various ways, I can now move like a regular person. This was what I had been pursuing. And yet, ironically, it makes me see my own limitations. In the end, no matter what I do, I cannot be a dancer with two ordinary legs.

So, then, how can I perform dances that will have real appeal? I began to think I ought to take advantage of my full potential. I had come to think that I should put my prosthetic to practical use. If I could make my prosthetic leg part of my overall appeal, and if people wished to see that, then I could finally become a real professional dancer.

My Own Distinctive Dancing

I want to dance as only a person like me could. These days, I have started to feel that I shouldn't even use a prosthetic. I realize that using the prosthetic would mean I'm trying to get closer to what everyone else does, in other words, admitting defeat.

So, for the closing ceremony of the Rio de Janeiro Paralympics, I wanted to do a back flip using one leg alone without wearing the prosthetic. Furthermore, to wow the audience, I wanted to do the back flip four times in a row. If I could do that, I thought, people would gain respect for those with disabilities.
At the closing ceremony, I got to show the people of the world not only my back flips, but also my dancing. Hopefully it inspired them in some way.

More Freedom

As a professional, I want to create moves that showcase what I can do in the best way. I want to feel freedom through dancing. By dancing the way my mind envisions the moves, I can become free. I want to feel that freedom more, and I think I can become more free. Because I was not free in that way for a very long time, my yearning for freedom is strong. By improving my body, I can move closer to what my mind envisions.

My Encounter with Dance


©You Sung Gil

When I was an eighth grader, we had to perform a farewell play for the ninth graders. When you are in junior high school you tend not to want to do things that stick out, but I was pressured by my classmates into playing an important supporting role. I did it, using various props in ingenious ways, and we got a big round of applause. Even better, the kids who had bullied me all through elementary school apparently saw me in a new light.
"So...this is where I can shine!"
It was then that I decided to pursue work on stage.


With my favorite Kumamon hat and T-shirt. I appear wearing this Kumamon hat a lot in the video clips I upload to my blog.
©You Sung Gil

Yearning for the Glamorous World

Dreaming of becoming an actor in musicals, I enrolled in a high school with a theater program. There, while doing some part time jobs, I started taking ballet classes. I got really absorbed. I yearned to join the glamorous world of ballet. My father was a construction worker. He was always dressed in dirty work clothes and work gloves, going off to his job on an old, secondhand mini truck full of lumber. It was not what I considered cool. I really wanted to avoid that kind of world.

Ungraceful is OK

When I was hit by the car and hospitalized, my family rushed to my side. My father, too, of course. I remember my father holding my right hand in both of his hands, repeating to me, "It's OK. You'll be OK." His hands were like gloves--rugged and coarse and soiled. But they were full of comfort and warmth. My father was on my side. I promised him, "I'll be OK. I'll survive."
My father's way of life may not have been so cool, but it was strong. I felt that, though I might have become ungraceful, I was still alive and healthy. Ungraceful as I might be, I would continue to dance.
My father had always been against my dancing, but seeing my continual efforts, he eventually came around and accepted me. Now that I have struggled through hell and become a professional dancer, I no longer think of my father as uncool, or of myself as uncool or ungraceful. If anyone thinks so, it does not matter.
I am one of those who never wants to admit defeat, and have always fought my way up to prove the naysayers wrong.

It is a good thing for us to keep on changing all the time. I myself have changed. What I used to think was "beautiful," in the end, was defined by my rather narrow taste. There are many beautiful things. One must first learn to recognize one's own beauty. In my case, it is that I lack a leg.

Today, I am enjoying life immensely, because I know I can become even more free. I am sure of that. I have learned to move in ways different from when I had two full legs, and have gotten better at using my body in general.
Dance is the way I can best express myself.

Interview: October 2016
Organized by: The Japan Forum

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