The 34-year-old double amputee performs the waltz, the samba, the cha-cha, and other dances on prosthetic limbs.
“It’s kind of like I’m on stilts,” she said of her carbon fiber prosthetics. “Trying to be graceful when it goes heel-toe is a little challenging.”
But her disability has never stopped her. Purdy is a world champion snowboarder fresh off the slopes at Sochi, where she won a bronze medal in this year’s Paralympic Games.
On the dance floor, her competition includes an Olympic champion, ice dancer Meryl Davis who took home gold in Sochi. Purdy not only has to summon power and control, but grace and rhythm as well.
They don’t make artificial limbs for ballroom or ballet dancing. One week Purdy wore a pair of feet designed for swimming, the toes pointed down like Barbie feet.
“It’s made for swimming so you could put a flipper on,” she said. “But we found that I could stand up on them, balance on them and get the lines that we wanted. We wanted these beautiful lines like a ballerina.”
Needless to say, the artificial feet are much less forgiving than real ones.
“The human foot has bones and muscles and can balance back and forth,” Purdy said. “If you step and you maybe make a little mistake, your foot can compensate. But if I step in the wrong spot, my foot isn’t going to compensate because it’s just one piece of carbon fiber.”
Purdy was 19 years old when she lost both legs -- and her kidney function -- after contracting bacterial meningitis.
“Within 24 hours of my first flu like symptoms, I was in the hospital on life support,” she said. “I was given less than a 2 percent chance of living. I ended up losing both of my legs because my body went into septic shock. That’s why I lost my kidney function.”
Her father gave her a kidney and, during a painful rehabilitation process, helped her get back on her feet by dancing with her.
“I remember standing up in my legs for the first time. They were so painful and really confining, they didn’t move,” Purdy said. “I thought, ‘how am I going to walk in these? How am I going to run? How am I going to do all the stuff I love to do?’”
But she pushed on and has since won three World Cup gold medals for snowboarding.
Purdy paid tribute to her father in a moving performance during Week 3 of “Dancing With the Stars.” Wearing a special pair of prosthetic feet that could point, Purdy and her pro-dance partner Derek Hough performed a dance with flowing, graceful moves meant to re-enact her effort to rebuild her life.
“People got to see more of my story and see who helped me through this journey, but also feel empowered by it,” Purdy said. “That’s what that dance was all about. It wasn't to make people sad. It was to show that you can be in the depths of despair and then find your way to the top and express that.”
The audience gave her a standing ovation, and her father wasn’t the only one in tears.
“I don’t think there’s a dry eye in the country right now,” said Bruno Tonioli, one of the judges.
Purdy said the point for her in competing on the show is to rise above the concept of disability altogether.
“It’s all about perspective,” she said. “It’s all about how we look at ourselves. I never look at myself as if I’ve lost anything. If anything I’ve gained.”