Lani Dickinson was found at the doorstep of an orphanage
She was born without a left arm
Now she's a professional dancer in California
Lani Dickinson was just 3 days old when she was found at the doorstep of an orphanage in the town of Tang Shi, China.
“When I came to the orphanage, there wasn’t any information left behind,” she said. “A lot of my birth culture was lost and forgotten.”
Not only did she not know her birth parents, she also didn’t know why she was born without a left arm.
“I like to say a quarter of an arm,” she said.
At 13 months old, Dickinson was adopted and brought to the United States. She quickly adapted to her new environment.
“My mom says I was the youngest out of her five children to learn how to tie a shoe. I started using my left foot, actually, and my toes to do stuff,” she said. “It just takes a lot of creative thinking. The process might be different, but the product is still the same.”
Growing up in Maryland, Dickinson had to deal with people’s stares.
“Coping with staring and rude comments or their doubts in my abilities, I definitely had to develop a resilience,” she recalled. “Luckily, I had good friends that accepted me and supported me for who I am.”
Finding herself on the dance floor
When Dickinson was 8 years old, she faced another health issue: scoliosis. Her mom put her in dance classes to help straighten her spine.
“She put me in ballet, jazz and tap to build more muscles for my back and to help with my posture.”
Dickinson fell in love with dance, and it set her life on a new path. On the dance floor, she felt like she could be herself.
“I felt empowered in my own body, and that’s when I found my voice,” she said. “Dance gave me the confidence in how I carry myself.”
But she still faced rejection from some instructors.
“I have been turned down from certain ballet teachers,” she said. “One saw that I had only one arm, and he said I would never have a career in dance.”
But she proved them all wrong.
Dickinson went on to study at the Alonzo King LINES Ballet at Dominican University in California. She was also awarded a $25,000 Princess Grace Foundation dance scholarship in 2015.
“My dream was to travel and dance,” Dickinson, 22, remembered. “I was attracted to both the dance itself and how dancers can travel the world and perform on different stages.”
Performing with a dance company
Her dream came true when she was accepted into AXIS Dance Company in Oakland, California, last year. She’s a full-time performer.
“We are a contemporary dance company. … We have dancers with and without physical disabilities,” said Judith Smith, AXIS founder. “Our mission is to change the face of dance and disability, and we do it through artistry, engagement and advocacy work.”
It’s not easy to find dancers with disabilities, she added, especially ones like Dickinson, who have trained their whole lives.
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“She’s a gorgeous dancer. She’s got beautiful lines. … I was just really taken with her,” Smith said.
Dickinson hopes she’s inspiring others by performing for them.
“For me, dancing for an intimate audience, I just hope that they are watching and that they can relate in some way,” she said. “If they’ve hit an obstacle in their life, I hope to inspire on how to overcome that obstacle.”