Songs from her childhood blast from the speakers during a ‘90s themed dance piece, one of many dances performed during Tapped Out! in January 2012. Other girls, and a lone male, join her on stage, all donned in overalls, neon, scrunchies and sweatbands. She’s the female lead, front and center with a giant grin on her face. As she does a few shuffles and riffs, her mother gazes at her from the audience, knowing she made the right choice to allow her daughter to keep dancing. She hears a sweet, old lady sitting a row behind her make a remark about her daughter: “Did you see that girl? Her hand doesn’t move.”
Julie Crothers, a sophomore dance major and arts administration minor at Elon University, was that girl.
“I never thought of myself as different,” said Julie, about her noticeably missing left arm.
On March 27, 1992, Crothers was born in Nashville, Tenn., to her parents Janet and John. Most of her left arm was missing at birth.
“We had had two ultrasounds, which didn’t show that there were any problems,” Janet Crothers said.
Julie was breach before she was born. The doctors were able to turn her around but they still didn’t know what caused her to be breach in the first place.
Janet recalls her obstetrician being very calm and relaxed when he told the family what they were dealing with.
“He acted like it was nothing. She’s fine, everything’s fine, she’s just a little different,” Janet said. “I think his reaction helped us come to terms with it.”
It was discovered that Julie had amniotic band syndrome (ABS). According to amnioticbandsyndrome.com, “ABS occurs when the fetus becomes entangled in fibrous string-like amniotic bands in the womb, restricting blood flow and affecting the baby’s development.” If wrapped tightly enough around a limb, the band can amputate it.
Janet remembered the day she left the hospital. She was sitting in the waiting room with newborn Julie, waiting for her husband to bring the car around.
“I remember looking at some children playing and thinking, ‘My baby will never do that, she will never be like these children,’” she said. “Which, of course, is ridiculous, but I just didn’t know what it was going to be like having a child with only one hand.”
Julie’s two older siblings, Jamie and Jenny, handled meeting their one-armed baby sister well.
Janet remembers when Julie’s oldest sister, Jenny – age six at the time – was holding her new sister for the first time and said matter-of-factly, “Mommy, that arm that didn’t grow all the way is poking me.” Jenny even begged to bring her special little sister to her class for show and tell one day.
Telling others about their new little bundle of joy was hard on the family.
“Some people were really sad, and that was kind of hard because we weren’t sad. We had a beautiful, healthy baby girl,” Janet said. “I don’t want somebody acting like this is a tragedy.”
Julie was five months old when she got fitted for her first prosthesis at Myoelectric Arms of Houston, Texas (now called Pediatric Prosthetics), that was recommended to the Crothers family by some family friends, whose daughter had an arm that needed to be amputated because she had cancer.
“For the first 17 years of my life, I got my arms from a lady named Linda Bean,” Julie said. “Linda became very close with my family and I because she saw me through the whole process over the years.”
Julie said Bean even flew out to the Crothers’ home in Nashville a few times to fit her for a new arm.
“My initial reaction was, ‘Well, Julie has a problem and we’re going to go get it fixed,’” Janet said about getting Julie a prosthesis, but the Crothers actually got some negative reactions from members of their community.
“That’s the way God made her,” and “She’ll be fine without it,” were the typical responses community members made.
“We never really felt that way,” Janet said. “I look at it like God made you with eyes that aren’t 20/20. You’re not going to get a pair of glasses so that you can see better?”
Janet explained that her and her husband John didn’t want Julie to think that something was wrong with her by getting her a prosthesis. They just wanted her to have the opportunity to use a prosthesis to her advantage.
“I was really self conscious when I was little,” Julie said, “I would wear [my prosthesis] all the time.”
One day, the Crothers family was going to church and Julie had forgotten to put her arm on.
“Some children forget to put their shoes on and she forgot to put her arm on,” Janet said with a laugh as she remembered the event.
Julie was embarrassed to be without her arm that day and wouldn’t go inside the church until her dad ran home and got her arm for her.
But now, Julie is much more confident and if one day she is annoyed with her arm, she just doesn’t wear it.
Janet tried to treat her daughter as much like any other child as possible, but some people in their community didn’t realize that Julie was capable of more than she seemed.
During a church gathering, the kids were playing games and one child decided to play Twister – a game that requires the use of all four limbs. The mother of the child apologized and suggested that the children play a different game, but Janet said not to worry and the game remained a go.
“Julie ended up doing really well in that game because when it would say left arm on red, she would take her arm off and put it on that color, so she ended up winning the Twister game,” she said.
Julie was never hindered by the protection of her parents because there was never anything they didn’t allow her to do because of her disability.
Julie even got her license at age 16 like everyone else, only needing a special knob that has been on her car since training, which allows her to make sharp turns and pull in and out of parking spots easier.
But the one thing that Janet was a little wary of at first was allowing Julie to take dance lessons.
“I mainly started [dancing] because my older sister danced and I wanted to be just like her,” Julie said.
Janet was nervous about letting her daughter dance until Ann Carroll, the owner of Ann Carroll School of Dance in Franklin, Tenn., told her that if Julie wanted to dance, to let her.
Niki Pennington, the head instructor of the lyrical department at the school since 1999, had never encountered someone with a prosthesis before Julie enrolled in her class.
Pennington started teaching Julie around age seven or eight. Neither Julie nor her parents ever asked for special treatment.
“She just kind of blended in with everybody and she was truly a phenomenal kid,” Pennington said.
Even though Julie was determined in letting nothing get in her way, there were still some things in dance that were difficult for her.
In 2003, she was a toy soldier in the Nashville Ballet’s rendition of The Nutcracker.
“We had to dance with the cane, holding it together, for half the number and then once the rats broke it, we had to hold it in two pieces in both hands,” Julie said.
She was worried that she wasn’t going to be able perform the role to the same level as everyone else, but with the help of the choreographer, rehearsal director and a helpful amount of Velcro, they made it work.
“Nothing’s impossible and issues can always be figured out,” Julie said.
Among Julie’s family, friends and professors, she’s known for three things: being determined, funny and caring towards everyone.
“I liked her immediately,” Jane Wellford, professor of performing arts at Elon, said.
Wellford first met Julie at spring orientation before Julie’s freshman year at Elon. She described Julie as personable, outgoing, sweet and well-mannered.
“Yes, I couldn’t help but notice that she had a prosthesis but when I started teaching her in classes, I noticed there was absolutely nothing different about her than any other person at all,” Wellford said.
In a piece Wellford choreographed in the fall, she required the dancers to do some very physical things and catch each other. It was a strenuous dance that involved a lot of contact improvisation.
“It was really hard for anybody with two arms that were whole,” Wellford said.
But Julie did that dance, in Wellford’s opinion, more vigorously than most.
“She was always so determined and won’t let anybody down or show any sign of weakness,” Wellford said. “Never ever.”
For Pennington, it was tough when Julie graduated high school because the two of them had become so close.
“She inspired me on a daily basis with her positive energy and her perseverance,” Pennington said. “She is an amazing individual and I am honored to have been her teacher and her friend.”
Senior dance and English double major Jess Duffy couldn’t stop praising Julie and her determination.
“It’s her attitude that shows me her drive and passion,” Duffy said. “It’s really inspiring.”
One time when Duffy was on tech for black box with Julie, they were cleaning up the set and Julie was messing around with the push broom, pretending to be struggling as she pushed with only one arm.
The stage manager noticed what Julie was doing and said, “You know it would help if you had two arms.”
“It was silent for a while but then Julie says something like, ‘I just have the one!’ and everyone started laughing, well, except for the stage manager of course,” Duffy said.
Julie shows her humor about her missing arm all the time. Sometimes she plays pranks on people – her youth minister at church would go around telling people that Julie only shook hands with her left hand. Once people would grab her hand, she would pull away so that her arm would detach itself.
One year for Halloween, Julie got creative and dressed up in all camouflage, taped her old prosthetics all around her, and called herself an “army man.”
As Julie grew as a dancer and showed her determination and her love for it, Janet grew out of her wariness of letting her dance and knew she made the right decision.
“I think initially I was scared her arm might fall off,” Janet said, but now she is glad that Julie can do something that she enjoys, and do it well.
“I love watching her dance, as any mother would,” Janet said. “It’s an extra special level with Julie because her road hasn’t been as easy as some.”
Julie, who was the fastest typist in her fourth grade keyboarding class – despite the lack of five fingers, she never let her disability stand in her way. She even wants to open her own dance studio someday so she can teach others how to live the dream of being a dancer.
“Being different than everyone else, especially in the dance world, there’s tons of times I could have made an excuse, and been like, ‘I can’t do that because I don’t have an arm,’ but not letting anything stop me and not getting stuck when something isn’t going right is the thing keeping me going,” Julie said, and a smile spread across her face.