Once or twice a week in his Oak Park home, Kris Lenzo slides out of his wheelchair and scoots downstairs to the basement. Once there, he wiggles into and laces up a pair of pants designed for trapeze artists, then uses his muscular arms to climb to the top of a six-foot-tall wooden apparatus–essentially a plank rigged onto a scaffold. His wife, Sheri, or his 12-year-old stepdaughter, Natalie, straps him in. Safety ropes are attached to metal panels sewn into the sides of his pants; a hinged and padded wooden board is clamped over the backs of his thighs. Once that’s done, Lenzo bends forward, letting his body hang upside down from the edge of the apparatus.

Though his upper body dangles–and sometimes sways lazily like a pendulum–this is a genuine workout for Lenzo. All that remains of his legs are 9 inches on the right and 11 on the left, and they’re bearing the whole of his 200 pounds as he hangs. Eventually the pain in his glutes becomes so intense he has to stop, but he tries to stay on the apparatus for about 20 minutes, sometimes coming up for air by using a chair under him to push his body to a horizontal position.

During all this, Lenzo’s pants need to be secure around the hips, mainly so the ropes can hold him firm. But there are also aesthetic concerns. “Sometimes,” Lenzo explains, “Sheri says, ‘Uh-oh, I don’t think you’re supposed to have a plumber’s crack.'”

Lenzo has been doing this for the past two months in preparation for a role in the two-person dance Ashes, which he first performed with the Oak Park dance company Momenta last spring. The nine-minute piece was choreographed and first performed by Tom Trimble, a personal trainer with an MFA in dance from the University of Illinois in Champaign, in 2002. Ashes opens with Lenzo with his back to the audience, hanging upside down from an eight-foot-high scaffold similar to the one he’s been training on. At the start of the piece, he’s in a lengthy entwined embrace with dancer Sandra Kaufmann, whom he gently lowers to the floor. After she drifts away, Kaufmann twists and swirls alone, mournfully–the music is the “lento e largo” movement of Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony no. 3–until she dances back to Lenzo, who lifts, cradles, and rocks her. This embrace and separation is repeated three times; at the end of the piece, Kaufmann is balled up in the fetal position at the base of the scaffold, just beyond Lenzo’s desperate reach.

“It’s about loss, grief,” Lenzo says. “Tom said that she’s a ghost. But when we were rehearsing he said it looks more like I’m a ghost. When she’s with me everything’s all right. But when she’s gone there’s nothing but pain. When I say that, that is the true reality of performing and rehearsing it. When we’re together, I’m focusing on what we have to do–lift her, grab this arm, grab that foot, and lower her slowly. And then when she’s gone, it’s like ‘Oh my God, my ass is killing me.’ I haven’t been in that much pain since my hospitalization after my accident.”

Lenzo, 45, lost his legs when he was 19, working at a beer-bottle recycling facility in Pontiac, Michigan, outside his native Detroit. “It was a real exciting job,” he says. “I’d empty out a box and put the bottles on one conveyor belt and the box on another.” So one day he tried to liven things up.

“I laid down on the conveyor belt and I said, ‘I’ve had it with this job! I’m going to a better place,'” he says. The conveyor belt drew him toward a bin where the belt dumped the boxes to be crushed by a steel plate. Everyone got a big laugh out of his stunt, Lenzo recalls. But when he tried to dismount, he lost his balance and fell into the bin. While he was scrambling to get out, the crusher came down on his legs.

Lenzo’s coworkers threw the crusher into reverse and lifted him out. As he sat on top of the compactor, he saw that his feet were smashed sideways and pointed in toward each other. “The pain was intense, but only for a few minutes,” he says. “Then I went into shock.” One coworker, a medic during the Vietnam war, stanched the bleeding from his thighs with a tourniquet made of baling wire and a stick.

“I’m certified stupid,” Lenzo says. “I tried to sue the manufacturer and the retailer and installer. They said, ‘You’ve just proved the machine’s not idiotproof.'”

Four years later, he was working as a wheelchair salesman and became heavily involved in wheelchair basketball and track. (He’s still an avid, though not competitive, hand cyclist.) It was in that context that he met his wife Sheri in 1995, who was working as a physical therapist at a school in Lansing, Michigan, and Lenzo was giving a wheelchair sports demonstration for disabled students there. They married in 1996. Today Sheri works as a physical therapist and assistive-technology specialist for Oak Park’s elementary school district, while Lenzo is a stay-at-home dad, stepdad, and foster dad. Olivia, 7, is his daughter with Sheri; Natalie, 12, is Sheri’s daughter from a previous marriage; foster daughter Thia, also 12, is a former classmate of Natalie’s who has cerebral palsy and also uses a wheelchair. Lenzo also has two older daughters, Elizabeth and Hannah, from a previous marriage; Lenzo and Sheri moved to Oak Park from Michigan in 1997 to be closer to them.

In 2000 the Lenzos enrolled Olivia in preschool at the Academy of Movement & Music, an Oak Park performing arts school. All the building’s entrances had steps, which forced Lenzo to climb up a landing and fling up his wheelchair behind him to get inside; to exit he’d pop a wheelie and bounce down the steps. Though Lenzo says he wasn’t very loud or persistent about advocating for improved access to the building, he did periodically prod the school’s staff about it.

“I couldn’t stand to see somebody crawling,” says Stephanie Clemens, the academy’s owner and co-artistic director of Momenta. So in 2002 she applied for and received a grant from Oak Park for $32,000, which she rallied families of academy members to match. Later that year a ramp was built outside the building, and a lift was installed indoors.

Ironically, Olivia was no longer a student at the school by then. But Lenzo was nevertheless pleased, and Clemens wanted to celebrate. When Momenta received a commission to choreograph a piece about families that deal with disabilities, Clemens asked Lenzo and Olivia to be in it. “It was kind of like when someone asks you to dance at a wedding,” Lenzo says. “You really don’t want to do it, but you feel like you can’t say no.” Weddings were about the only place he’d ever danced, with or without legs–and even then reluctantly.

But Lenzo decided it was a unique father-daughter bonding opportunity, and he says it didn’t take long for him to get hooked on the atmosphere of rehearsal and collaboration. The resulting dance, called Sharing the Moment, featured Lenzo playing the role of a father to Olivia as well as to ten-year-old twin sisters, one of whom had cerebral palsy, from another family. Lenzo especially enjoyed one point in the dance when he propelled himself across the stage in a low cart by pushing against the floor with his hands. “One of the twins got on my back,” he says, “and we spun around like a spider and chased Olivia.”

“He had such a terrific presence and charisma, and he’s such a fine athlete,” Clemens says of his performance. “Even with the kids I teach, you can tell when you put someone onstage whether they’re going to shrink or bloom. Lenzo was a bloomer.”

Lenzo was eager for another opportunity to dance, so in 2002, when Clemens saw Trimble and Natalie Williams perform Ashes at Dance Chicago she thought, “My goodness, here’s a piece for Kris Lenzo because he doesn’t need legs to do this.”

But legs were, in fact, important. The apparatus Trimble used onstage for last year’s performance had only a single strap holding him across his thighs. Because Lenzo’s thighs are partly missing, he needed a more secure method, as well as more strength in his legs. Mike Dutka, Momenta’s lighting designer, came up with the idea for the specialized pants, the ropes, and the hinged board Dutka calls the mousetrap.

“The ropes hook to the pants and hold the pants in place,” says Lenzo. “So I was OK as long as I had the pants on right. The only way I would fall is if I slid out of the pants.” The mousetrap held his thighs down snugly, keeping them from rising when he arched up and giving him the leverage he needed to lift Kaufmann. Despite that feat of ingenuity, Lenzo almost backed out after a few rehearsals because of the physical strain.

“And then Tom said, ‘You’re never going to be comfortable. You just find an acceptable level of pain,'” Lenzo says. “That’s when I knew I could do it. It’s worthwhile for such a beautiful dance.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/A. Jackson.