Boogie Shoes

How Paralympian Amy Purdy Dances Like a Star

Olympian Amy Purdy might win this season of ‘Dancing With the Stars,’ and she’s a double amputee. The technology that keeps her twirling and dipping is nothing short of incredible.

04.30.14 9:45 AM ET

Every Monday night at 8 p.m. Eastern, some section of middle-America gathers around to watch Olympic athletes, astronauts, teen stars, supermodels, and more try to dance. Dancing With the Stars has run since 2005, and its army of devoted fans picks their favorites early and cheers them on each week. This season, one contestant stands out in particular. Amy Purdy has wowed the judges each week with her grace, her athleticism, and her ability to take the audience on an emotional journey through each performance. She’s an incredible dancer, and she also happens to be a double amputee, missing both legs below the knee.

At 19, Purdy came home with what she thought was the flu. Just 24 hours later, she was in the hospital, given a 2 percent chance of living. Bacterial meningitis was taking its toll on her body and after two and a half months of hospitalization, Purdy had lost her spleen, both kidneys, hearing in her left ear, and both legs below the knee.

Today, Purdy is an Olympic snowboarder, spokeswoman, actress, and now, a dancer. She’s quickly become a favorite on Dancing With the Stars, consistently impressing the judges with her performance.

Here’s what you should know about the incredible technology of Purdy’s prosthetics.

Every amputee has a differently shaped residual limb, which means that every amputee has a uniquely shaped, specially fitted socket that fits over that residual limb. Each prosthetic socket is fitted to the individual person by a specially trained prosthetist so that it conforms to their body perfectly. This fit is perhaps the most important piece of the whole setup—you can have the most state of the art leg around, but if it doesn’t fit your body nicely, it’s essentially useless. In Purdy’s case, her socket attaches to her residual limb with a locking pin system, similar to the way a trailer might attach to a truck.

At the end of each of these legs, Purdy wears a few different kinds of feet. For dancing, she switches feet depending on what the dance requires. So far, viewers of the show have seen Purdy in three different kinds of feet. When swing dancing and doing the cha-cha, she wore what’s called a sach foot—a very basic solid foot that lets her rotate on her toes. For jazz and Latin dances, she wore a carbon fiber foot with an adjustable heel that let her dance up on her toes. But the performance that caught most people’s eyes was the tear-jerking tribute to her father in week three, in which Purdy danced on pointed toes. She seemed to defy gravity throughout the dance, standing on the tips of the rubber and carbon fiber feet.

What Purdy was wearing in that dance weren’t feet designed for dancing at all. They’re actually feet designed for swimming, made by a company called Freedom Innovations. The feet have two settings, flat and flexed, so that amputees can walk along the beach, get into the water, and then flex the foot to an angle to swim. No one had ever danced on them, like Purdy did, but when she came to Freedom Innovations and asked for feet she could use to stand on her toes, the company had to think fast.

Even though the foot wasn’t tested for this kind of use, Purdy felt it was worth the risk. “We were a bit concerned, because obviously the product isn’t meant for walking in that position,” says Meghan Seus, the senior product manager at Freedom Innovations. She admitted that watching Purdy dance on the foot was both exciting and a bit stressful. “I was holding my breath,” she says. It paid off for Purdy though, as the dance brought the audience to tears.

But it’s not that her feet are making it easy for her. In a way, the timing of this Dancing With the Stars is perfect for Purdy. Just a few months ago, she was in top condition at Sochi, winning a bronze medal in the first ever Paralympic snowboarding event. And that’s almost certainly helping her on the show. Take the pointed-toe routine, for example. That’s not easy to do on a biological foot, and even harder on a prosthetic, says David Rotter, a prosthetist who works with the winter Olympic ski team. “She’s not doing that through any anatomical structure, she’s doing that through the balance of her prosthetics. It’s incredible.”

Purdy isn’t the first amputee to compete on Dancing With the Stars. In 2007, Heather Mills—an amputee and alpine skier (and yes, the former wife of Paul McCartney)—danced on the show. Then, as now, there was a bit of tension about the performance among amputees. While many applaud both Purdy and Mills for both showing amputees what’s possible—and showing non-amputees that they aren’t defined by their prosthetics—some complain that they’re setting unrealistic expectations. Both Mills and Purdy can afford whatever devices and training they want—not something the average amputee can boast.

But many who work with amputees say that seeing someone like Purdy on television is incredibly important. Robert Radocy, a therapist, prosthetics designer, and amputee himself who has designed a whole array of devices to help amputees get and stay active, says that having someone like Purdy performing so well on the main stage is crucial to show patients what’s possible. “Not everyone might be able to reach her level of performance,” he says “but at least they know that it’s possible.” And having that option in their mind can make all the difference.

And while it’s true that Purdy has far more legs than the average amputee, who generally has to make do with just one, Seus points out that Purdy isn’t dancing on anything particularly expensive. “These products are accessible,” she says. Certain high-tech feet and legs can indeed get pricey. A single powered prosthetic foot, like the biOM model, can cost $50,000. But Purdy isn’t dancing on anything that fancy: her swim foot is the most expensive one, running about $3,800; the heeled foot costs $3,000; the sach foot she wore costs just $500. And the socket she’s wearing—the locking-pin design—is the same kind that many amputees wear. “There’s not really anything unique about her legs,” says Rick Myers, a prosthetist who has worked with Purdy in the past.

Here’s the thing about Amy Purdy that everyone I talked to wanted to say: she’s the star here, not her legs. David Hughes, a prosthetist at Freedom Innovations, put it this way: “You walk the leg, the leg doesn’t walk you.” Technology can help someone walk, run and dance again. But what viewers of Dancing With the Stars are watching is a performer, someone who can express emotion through her movement.

A well-made prosthetic leg can make someone a dancer, but no amount of prosthetic technology can make someone a performer.