The one-armed pole dancer

DEB IN ACTION: In the midst of her International Pole Championship  routine.
DEB IN ACTION: In the midst of her International Pole Championship routine.

She was told she should quit dancing because she was "aesthetically displeasing". She was kicked off her fifth grade netball team for "bringing the other girls' performance down". And other kids tried to force-feed her cockroaches with one leg pulled off.

After a childhood of cruel taunts it would be understandable if Deb Roach, who was born with one arm, was now contorted by bitterness.

But this 31-year-old has become better, not bitter, by refusing to accept the boundaries bequeathed by others.

She has run Mount Kosciuszko, climbed to Everest base camp, and she has trained with aspirations to be on the national cycling team for the Paralympics. She is also a yoga teacher, personal trainer, public speaker and pole dancer.

Through her pole dancing she has disproved the misguided notion that because "you're disabled, you're not allowed to be sexy".

Roach won the first competition she entered, against able-bodied competitors, and went on to win the disabled division of the 2012 International Pole Championship.

"Curves in the right places are all that matter," she says.

Success has proved the best revenge but it's also an ode to her own resilience and the decision that she is responsible for her outlook on life.

"Everything is a choice. I own my choices, I own my life. I don't blame anything on anyone ever," she says.

This was not always the case.

Roach admits to feeling desperately lonely and "never good enough" while growing up. To combat this she drew eyes and a mouth on her truncated arm and confided in the "friend" she named Fred.

While Fred may have offered some comfort, nothing could prevent the pain of constant put-downs.

A standout moment, for all the wrong reasons, took place after a dance camp when she was 14 years old.

She had grown up loving dance and says she had "worked my arse off" to progress through the grades.

She was proud of her achievements until a peer at school said: "You might as well give up because dancing is an aesthetic pursuit and you're only a broken line."

Roach was distraught. "I think it was probably one of the most damaging things that anyone has ever said to me," she says. "It didn't make me give up dance. I just had private ballet lessons after that."

Shortly afterwards she moved to France for a year on an academic scholarship and was further confronted by her own sense of limitations.

Being away from family for the first time, it dawned on her just how much her mother had done to prevent her from feeling restricted by disability. Among other things her mother would do her hair, her laces, make her bed and food.

"I got to France and a sandwich wouldn't make itself," she says. "I realised how much I took for granted."

She dropped into a deep depression and ended up on medication when she returned to Australia.

Things were set to worsen before they got better. She stopped dancing and went through an extended period of partying hard and attempting to escape her own torment. She dyed her hair green, wore black and went "goth".

It was, she says, "my f--- you" to the world. "If you want to look at me, I'll give you 50 reasons to . . . I thought everyone was an arsehole."

As a result of the partying she landed in hospital with pneumonia. It was the wake-up call she needed.

She began running, taking dance and yoga classes and rebuilding her life from a healthier, more nurturing base. She also started to meet people who showed her that the bullies were the exception, not the rule.

"There are people who will love me without exception," says Roach, who is president of the Amputee Association of Sydney.

The shifting perspective of others coincided with a change in outlook on her own capabilities.

After chancing on a pole dancing performance one night she was struck by its physical theatre and strength. It wasn't, to her surprise, "overtly sexual".

She was intrigued but assumed she couldn't do it because of her arm. "How do you know you can't?" asked the performer she had begun chatting to after the show.

She took classes, building her strength and breaking the boundaries of what she and others thought she could do.

"I'll be doing something now and go 'how am I doing this?' " says Roach, who will talk about resilience and "owning life" at Sydney's upcoming Wanderlust Festival (there's also a Wanderlust coming up in Auckland).

Winning the International Pole Championship was a highlight.

"I had no idea I had this in me," she says. "I'm so grateful for the amounts my body is capable of. I wouldn't trade it for quids."

Sydney Morning Herald