Evan Ruggiero discovered his passion at age five when he and his mother went to pick up his younger sister from dance class in their hometown of Old Bridge.
“I saw my sister in a class and thought, That looks fun,” says Ruggiero, now 28. That early interest led Ruggiero to a lifetime dedication to the performing arts—despite a devastating health crisis that easily could have dead-ended his career.
Ruggiero studied jazz dance, then moved on to tap, where things “really took off.” At age 10, he was accepted as a student at the New Jersey Tap Ensemble under the direction of Deborah Mitchell. Ruggiero’s talents seemed unlimited. He picked up singing and acting and learned to play the guitar, drums and saxophone. He performed in local theater, debuting as Daddy Warbucks in a local production of Annie, and played the drums in his high school marching band.
After graduating from Old Bridge High School, he entered the John J. Cali School of Music at Montclair State University, where he pursued a degree in musical theater.
During rehearsal for the first show of his sophomore year at MSU, Ruggiero felt a sudden pain in his right leg. Suspecting a sprain, he visited doctor who sent him to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. The diagnosis: He had osteosarcoma, bone cancer, in his leg.
Ruggiero underwent four surgeries in three months. Bones were transplanted from his left leg to the right; muscle was taken from his back to nourish and supplement blood flow to his leg. After a 33-day hospital stay, he left with a prescription for physical therapy and rest.
But a few months later, doctors discovered the cancer had not only returned, but had metastasized to his lungs. To save his life, the doctors would have to amputate his right leg above the knee.
“I was like, I’m going out of my mind, you know?” recalls Ruggiero. He couldn’t help but wonder, Why me? Then Ruggiero remembered the videos Mitchell had shown him of Clayton “Peg Leg” Bates, an African-American entertainer legendary for tapping with one leg. Ruggiero was determined to one day dance again.
After undergoing 13 surgeries and 16 months of chemotherapy, Ruggiero started working in a studio with his prosthetic “peg leg” to develop his own set of rules and rhythms.
“I couldn’t bear weight in the same way, so I just tried to create the sounds as I could,” says Ruggiero.
In 2013, Ruggiero received his degree from MSU and began his career as a teacher, motivational speaker and performer. He has shared his story on Ellen, performed at the Biden Cancer Summit, and appeared in theatrical productions, including in the lead role off-Broadway in Bastard Jones, for which he won a 2017 Clive Barnes Award. He’s also singer/guitarist in his own rock band, Evan and the S’Evan Legs.
Ruggiero’s ultimate goal is to perform on Broadway. “One day that will happen,” he says. Meanwhile, “I wish to continue to be an advocate for artists with disabilities and to be my best possible self, enjoying life every day.”
Ruggiero will perform January 13 at Homecoming 25, New Jersey Tap Ensemble’s 25th-anniversary celebration at Kean University’s Wilkins Theater in Union.
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