September 28, 2022
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Photography by Sasha Evory/Stocksy United
After my diagnosis, I gave up on dance. Now it’s an essential part of my physical and mental well-being.
For my 6th birthday, I asked for ballet lessons as a birthday gift. I knew even then that I wanted to be a dancer. My answer to the perennial question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” was always the same.
It was 10 years and several recitals later, that I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), a disease that would attack my central nervous system, and could prevent me from ever dancing again. I was distraught. My legs grew weaker as I approached my high school graduation, yet I still was committed to seeing my dream through to college. I was accepted into a school of the arts for dance and theatre training, despite the looming disease progression I never talked about.
I was often the student stumbling in the back of the classroom. My numbness confused my feet, my weakness affected my leg extensions, and my balance prevented pirouettes. I was dancing against the current or, more accurately, without one, thanks to electrical impulses that wouldn’t flow. Others must have assumed I was just a poor student who either never practiced or simply couldn’t keep up.
Fortunately, in my later years of college, our curriculum expanded to include more flexible dance styles, like modern and jazz. I quickly leaned into these classes because modern dance allowed me to move without the learned limitations imposed by ballet technique.
Developed in the early 20th century, modern dance rejects the structured steps of ballet and focuses instead on a person’s interpretation of movement. Rather than relying on the restricted predetermined poses of ballet, modern dance focuses on freedom of movement and the emotion that derives from it. Basically, modern dance allows one to move freely in an expression of feelings.
After college, though, with adulthood responsibilities creeping in, my lifestyle shifted from being active and creative to feeling stagnant and dull at a computer desk, sitting for hours on a daily basis, staring into a screen. This sedentary lifestyle quickly became limiting. My body felt calcified and stiff and I found myself getting injured much more often.
I tried working a few quick dance gigs and took some classes again. I realized I couldn’t keep up, and eventually, I couldn’t even handle the cultural dances of my Cuban heritage, like salsa and merengue. The challenging, rapid footwork I proudly mastered as a teen was simply not possible for me anymore in my 20s. I was heartbroken, discouraged, and depressed. I stopped dancing, and eventually, my disease progressed from relapsing-remitting to secondary progressive MS.
Weakness and fatigue took over my body and mind, affecting me physically, cognitively, and emotionally. I felt helpless and stuck in my failing body, overtaken by the impotence of my limbs, swimming hazily in a daily mental fog.
Then, about a year ago, I discovered physically integrated (PI) dance, and everything changed.
This progressive subgenre of dance began developing in response to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, which prohibited discrimination against people with disabilities and put forth accessibility requirements for dance makers and studios. ADA spotlighted the lack of space within the artform for dancers with disabilities, and the development of PI dance created inclusive environments inspired by this new legislation. Since then, a plethora of PI dance companies have emerged onto the dance scene.
This groundbreaking contemporary dance form is inclusive of those both with and without disabilities, where mobility aids such as wheelchairs and electric scooters become extensions of the dancers’ bodies. Its choreographers transpose traditional dance techniques to fit the dancer’s abilities. PI dance challenges artistic and societal perceptions of what defines physical beauty and beautiful movement.
Finding my grounding in this new movement style transformed my personal narrative about what I’m capable of. I could no longer tell myself that I couldn’t be a dancer because of MS. Instead, I discovered a world of possibilities I had deemed impossible after my diagnosis. I began to explore movement beyond my perceived limitations and focused instead on my abilities and how to use them.
Dancing soon became liberating for me, and I found myself moving my body in new, dynamic ways. I discovered how isolating certain body parts could strengthen them, like when I focused on moving only my metatarsals (the joints at the tip of my fingers and toes) or bending the full length of my spine. While I found it challenging to demand this kind of movement from my symptomatic body, exercising it strengthened these often-forgotten body parts.
Introducing movement to these underused muscles expanded my range of movement and coordination tremendously. My flexibility improved and I felt stronger, and sat up taller. My endurance improved too, and over time, I noticed I felt less fatigue and required less rest.
Dancing is now my favorite form of exercise. The endorphins and endocannabinoids — the “feel-good” neurotransmitters your body produces during cardiovascular exercise — made me feel happier and more optimistic. Over time, dance has dramatically improved my mood.
It has also provided cognitive support, like strengthening my working memory and focus. Moving in rhythm takes not only physical skill but also mental agility — for example, to prepare for shifts in tempo. Moving to music or dancing in a group also requires cognitive focus and awareness to move in tandem with partners, music and one’s environment.
According to a small 2017 study that examined how participating in ballroom dance affected people with MS, dance challenges and stimulates cognition by requiring people to:
In other words, the act of moving provides an opportunity for the brain to practice sending complex signals to the body to move. This is the very type of communication between the brain and body that can become disconnected in MS, and I found that practicing this type of movement drastically improved my symptoms.
Dancing is a wonderful way to explore your personal abilities. It’s a deeply personal form of self-expression, and it’s an excellent way to exercise your mind and body. The rise of physically integrated dance has changed the limiting belief that this art form is only for the able-bodied. It negates that narrative. Rather, this dance form has invited me to rediscover my body and expand my range of movement rather than to dwell on my physical inabilities. I invite you to dance!
Medically reviewed on September 28, 2022
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