Kris Lenzo, the 56-year-old Oak Park resident who was grand marshal of last Saturday’s Disability Pride Parade in downtown Chicago — his fifth time participating — describes the solo dance “Passage Hawk,” which he performed that day on a stage in Daley Plaza, as a piece “that tries to blur the lines between wheelchair and standup dancer.”
That blurred line, the constant trampling of easy assumptions about the precise point at which ability, or disability, begins and ends, might be a metaphor for Lenzo’s life.
In 1979, while working a summer job in Michigan, his legs were crushed in a cardboard compactor. Eleven days after the accident, the 19-year-old athlete — who had twice ridden his bike from Detroit to New York City — lost his left leg. Three days later, he lost his right one.
Immediately after the accident, he confronted two of the hardest periods of his life.
That first period, he noted, was the uncertain time between losing his left and right legs. He didn’t know what to expect. He had been sick with fever and couldn’t eat. His 185-pound athletic body, once equally adept on the basketball court, the football gridiron, and on a bike, had become a 105-pound remnant of muscle and lean fat.
“It was almost a relief when they amputated the right leg, because I knew that my health would improve,” Lenzo said. “It took me more than three months to regain my strength.”
The other difficult period was when he left the hospital and returned home to a house filled with the sound of people running up and down steps.
“Those first couple of days home were hard because the permanency of what happened was starting to set in,” he recalled.
Those dark days, however, didn’t last long. Not long after the amputations, the athlete who once biked halfway across the country began wheeling his way around the basketball court again. When he started, Lenzo recalled, his game was slow and plodding. Eventually, by playing with stronger and faster opponents, his speed and strength improved.
He worked his way up to international competition, becoming a member of the United States national teams in both wheelchair basketball and wheelchair track. He won “a few” national championships in both sports, he said with genuine modesty.
And then, dropping one of his daughters off at her preschool, he started to consider dancing.
“My daughter had been a student at the Academy of Movement and Music,” he said. “I asked the owner Stephanie Clemens if she would consider installing an accessible ramp on the building. She told me she would, but I thought she was just trying to get rid of me.”
Clemens not only raised the money to install the ramp, she also installed accessible bathrooms inside the facility, among other ADA-compliant features. Afterward, she asked Lenzo if he’d like to be in a dance featuring people with disabilities.
“I initially wasn’t up to it,” said Lenzo, who has five daughters from what he calls a “pureed” family. “But I felt obligated for all the work she’d done. That was March 2003.”
From the first rehearsals, Lenzo recalled, he fell in love with the activity, which he compared to playing basketball with one of his daughters. Only dance was in many ways harder, he said.
“You’d think it would be easier because nobody’s playing defense against you, but the things you’re doing are typically difficult things you’re trying to make look effortless,” said Lenzo.
“There’s this one piece called ‘Ashes,’ where I’m hanging upside down for nine minutes, most of the time in fairly excruciating pain. My gluteus muscles get all cramped,” he said.
On certain stages where performs the number, Lenzo’s lower extremities are completely engulfed in shadow and clamped to a metal apparatus.
He doesn’t regret entertaining, but there are times when he entertains regrets.
“Sometimes I wish I could’ve discovered dance when my body was more capable,” he observed. Nonetheless, “I don’t regret the accident. I’m comfortable with the body I’ve gained, the perspective, the people, the places. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
“Plus, I can’t anyhow,” he said, with that little smirk.