There are times on stage when audience members don't notice dancer Lani Dickinson is missing a left arm. There was even that time at a dance competition when the judges completely mistook her missing arm as an act.
"They thought the piece was entirely about this dancer who loses her arm," Dickinson said with a grin.
Dickinson is used to the curious stares. She was born in China without her left arm. She was adopted by an American family and raised on the East Coast – enduring strange looks from schoolmates. She learned to tie her shoes with one hand. She adapted.
"I definitely had a lot of eyeballs on me, which i never really liked," she said, sitting on a bench at San Rafael's Dominican University, where she is a senior. "I don't like when kids stare at me – even up to now."
As a child, Dickinson suffered from scoliosis, so her mother enrolled her in dance classes at the age of 8 to help straighten her back. Dickinson describes her initial dance classes as the first time she fell in love. Despite missing a limb, she found a place among her fellow dancers – a place where she was embraced.
"In the dance studio I'm accepted for who I am," Dickinson said. "And I can just speak with my body instead of the little eyeballs."
Dickinson's foray into contemporary ballet dance at Dominican University has garnered her something she's never been too comfortable with: attention. The prestigious Princess Grace Foundation recently awarded Dickinson with its coveted 2015 dance scholarship, considered the nation's top scholarship for dance.
"They're really interested in artists who are going to push the art form forward," said Marina Hotchkiss, program director for Dominican's ballet program. "I think Lani is absolutely clearly that artist who pushes the audience to see dance differently, to see the human body differently, to see human possibility differently."
On a recent day inside the Lines Dance Center in San Francisco, Dickinson practiced a routine specially choreographed for her senior recital at Dominican. To a sparse soundtrack of pings and spoken voice, she strutted around in a circle, seeming to flail her missing arm as if issuing a challenge to all those who had ever doubted her.
"It's a big part of it I think," she said.
In dance, Dickinson constantly squares-up against challenging choreography not designed for someone missing a limb. Dickinson figures out ways to maneuver her body within the movements – subtlety crafting a personal style through necessity.
"Her disability has made her a stronger, sharper thinker," said fellow dancer Rebecca Lillich, "and far more adaptable than any of us."
Hotchkiss said Dickinson has created something of an art form through her skill at adapting complex moves into her own cantata of movement.
"She just does it, she sorts things out," Hotchkiss said. "She's brilliant at figuring things out."
Dickinson has endured snubs within the dance world. She recalled times when she was told she couldn't take part in dance auditions because of her disability. But perhaps her biggest critic, is herself. She said one of her biggest challenges in dance was learning the barre, the beam used for stretching and exercises that's a cornerstone of the dance world. Dickinson said a common maneuver required gripping the barre with a left arm to kick up a leg, something she couldn't do.
"I would get really defeated by seeing myself in the mirror," Dickinson said. In times of defeat she said leaned on a phrase she learned in high school; 'Remember who you are and what you stand for."
Dickinson said she never set out to become a voice of inspiration for the disabled community, though she's often cited as an inspiration.
"As I keep dancing I realize I speak for them," she said.
She said she realizes her dream of touring and performing internationally will put even more eyes on her – a discomfort she'll face with her usual tenacity.
"I think it comes from being born disabled," Dickinson said. "I've just had to adapt."