“Once a dancer, always a dancer!”
That’s what I told a new generation of ballerinas at the University of California at Irvine, when I received a dance degree from my wheelchair. It had been 23 years since a ballet injury at that school had triggered Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS) in my right leg.
Twenty five years into this chronic pain illness — which over time has spread throughout my entire body — strangers still ask if I’m a ballerina. The question strikes me as ironic, as I’ve spent ten years bedridden and currently can only walk a short distance before relying on my wheelchair.
But that love of dance, that discipline — that endless, sweaty, grueling work — still gives itself away in my posture, long neck, high arches, and turnout. And over the years, despite my limited mobility, I’ve kept myself slim, because of that body-as-temple training.
Beyond externally appearing to be a dancer, I dream each night that I am dancing. Dance is the embodiment of my identity. It defines who I am, who I will always be.
About ten years ago, after I finally received my CRPS (formerly Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy, or RSD) diagnosis, I began to receive proper medical care for the first time. Prior to that, for a decade and a half, my doctors were all telling me that I was crazy:
- “You have stage fright.”
- “You’re suffering from ‘tendonitis from Mars.’”
- “You’re enjoying the secondary gain you’re receiving from your attentive partner.” (They loved that one!)
- “You’re only a woman anyway. It doesn’t really matter. Why don’t you just shoot yourself in the head?”
It finally occurred to me that I should be the one questioning these doctors’ sanity.
When I got out of my HMO and into quality care, I arrived at my new doctor’s office on a gurney, folded up in a fetal position — my immobility and severe pain the result of being bedridden for so long. The doctor confirmed my CRPS diagnosis and, miracle of miracles, believed my reports of pain.
The pain blocks and medications he prescribed helped up to a certain point, but it was ultimately my love of ballet, combined with the Feldenkrais Method, that healed me the most.
I hooked up with an expert physical therapist, Bonnie Cardenas, whose goal was to “unfold” my body. I was afraid of the process, however — really afraid — because it hurt so much to be touched. Even when someone touched my bed, my burning pain levels would shoot sky-high.
Bonnie was extremely gentle in her words and mannerisms, so she quickly earned my trust. Long before she began to touch me, our sessions simply involved my closing my eyes and visualizing ballet movements, while Bonnie talked me through the visualizations.
I couldn’t visualize walking, because that hurt my body too much. But for whatever reason, visualizing myself doing a triple pirouette on pointe, center-floor adage combinations (slow, unfolding movements), and toe hops felt both natural and safe. I could sense my body opening up, freeing itself to move in a way that was familiar to me.
Over time, Bonnie began to touch me during the midst of my visualizations. Perhaps my dancing “distraction” desensitized my body. I was in a safe, wonderful place, and her touch no longer hurt me.
I was getting some of the benefit of dancing just by seeing and doing in it inside my head.
Muscles and joints increasingly relaxed, and flexibility increasingly returned with each session. More and more, Bonnie slowly, gently unfolded my limbs — into a position they hadn’t been in years. Once I broke out in tears, overwhelmed with the joy that my body could at last express itself again through movement!
This morning, like every morning, the first thing I did upon waking was get myself down onto the floor, where I did my “ballet physical therapy” — dance-inspired movements I’ve discovered are natural to my body and enable me to maintain the maximum possible amount of strength and flexibility.
Dance remains my greatest love and my most precious healer. Because I have dance training in my body, mind, and soul, it defines me. It brings me to a place of peace and joy, a centering, that nothing else can even touch.
Since I was seven, I’ve wondered what the point of life was if one didn’t dance every day. Since becoming ill at age 21, I have continued dancing regularly through my dreams each night.
Once a dancer, always a dancer.