When Steve Mitchell takes to the dance floor, people notice. The muscular 6-foot-4 man with an ear-to-ear smile is a presence that draws the eye. With his dance partner and teacher, Marina Laca, he glides across the floor for a waltz in long, smooth steps, or turns, twists and swirls Laca under his arm in a rhythmic Latin number.
Although Mitchell began dancing only in early 2010, in the fall of 2011 he entered the Tampa Bay Classic, a ballroom dance competition that draws participants from all over the country. He was awarded first place in his division — "Best Newcomer."
After almost two more years of practice with Laca, Mitchell again cast his lot with more experienced dancers in the Tampa Bay Classic last September. This time he competed in the bronze level, the next level up, and again took first place.
What the judges didn't know was that Mitchell, 52, has been an amputee since 1990. He lost the lower half of his right leg in a boating accident on Lake Kissimmee.
"They were judging me by the same standards they were judging everyone else," he said.
Winning first place is no small task. Even for experienced dancers, the competition is tough. Mitchell entered the standard 70 dances, or "heats," each one lasting about two minutes. Dancers take to the floor for smooth dances, such as the tango, waltz and fox trot, in the morning. In the afternoon they move to the jaunty Latin rhythms of the rumba, bolero and cha cha. Mitchell performed well in all.
"We were shocked" that Mitchell took first place, Laca said, "because there were a lot of good male competitors."
Those who know Mitchell, who lives in St. Petersburg and sells recreational vehicles in Tampa, are not that shocked. He projects a can-do attitude observed by Laca, by the prosthetist who fits and changes his prosthetic leg, and by the surgeon who removed his lower leg.
Rushed to the emergency room after the boating accident, Mitchell asked if the leg could be saved. When the surgeon replied he couldn't save it, Mitchell's response was immediate: "Let's just do it." He was ready to move on to a new reality.
Dance never had been of particular interest to Mitchell, a skilled golfer and boater who works out regularly at the gym. But when his 18-year-old daughter wanted to take dance lessons in 2010, he accompanied her to a class taught by Laca and her husband, Martin, owners of Martin & Marina Dance Connection who teach in two local studios. Mitchell sat on the sidelines watching — for a while.
"It looked like fun so I got talked into trying it," he said. Laca took him on as a new student, and he was soon hooked. A passion for dance took root and has continued to grow.
"Our goal now is to develop his movements to enter the silver level," said Laca. She said she is confident this student can do it.
In spite of his success on the dance floor, Mitchell is well aware of the challenges that come with being an amputee, in dance as well as in daily life. His leg often gets sore, or hot and sweaty in the summer. Since the motion in his right leg is limited, a dance like the samba is difficult to perform.
"It involves a lot of knee compression," Mitchell said of the fast-moving Latin dance, "and there is ankle movement I still can't do."
Robert Dixon, the prosthetist with the Hanger Prosthetics & Orthotics in Clearwater who has worked with Mitchell since 2006, knows well the challenges amputees must face.
"It's typical of amputees to go through a lot of prostheses in a lifetime because of disuse atrophy," Dixon said. "The muscles shrink when they're not being used anymore."
Dixon changes Mitchell's prosthesis every four or five years.
"Your body changes over time," he said. "Muscle tone and weight transfer occur."
Prostheses do not come cheaply, making cost a factor for many as well. Leg prostheses like the one Mitchell now wears can cost upward of $10,000. The foot is the major expense. Insurance covers the bulk of the cost, but Mitchell has a $2,000 deductible. The current prosthesis, which he got in August, is a special one that should serve him well as a dancer.
"It's got a better fitting socket because of changes in his limb," said Dixon, "and a different foot with a multi-axial, shock-absorbing ankle, which will increase his range of motion."
Dixon has been impressed by Mitchell's attitude about living as an amputee.
"Steve was ahead of the curve physically when the accident occurred because he was in good shape," he said. "His outlook, motivation and spirit are all positive."
Apart from the sheer enjoyment of the challenge of competitive dancing, Mitchell said he has another goal in succeeding.
"My main motivation," he said, "is to show other physically disabled people that they can still do almost anything."
Correspondent Elaine Markowitz can be reached at [email protected]