Salsa As Medicine

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It was a cold morning in December. My feet were unusually tingly on my way to the shower. I laughed, thinking that’s what I get for having worn a warm pair of woolen socks to sleep all night. I was sure that it was just a strong case of pins and needles. But stepping out of the shower, I was startled to find that no matter how much I scrubbed my thick towel against my skin, I couldn’t feel parts of my legs under it.

I tried not to panic, believing that the feeling – or lack of feeling – would subside. But within a few weeks, the numbness traveled to my stomach, and turned into a strain on my spine. On some days, I could barely bend down to help the students in my grade six classroom. And I felt tired after just an hour of any concentrated activity. My usual energy and enthusiasm was quickly transformed into an uncontrollable lethargy.

After many visits to various doctors and specialists, and finally being sent for an MRI exam in March, I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. I didn’t know much about it at the time, but had heard stories that it had the power to permanently disable or cripple. And sitting in the waiting room of the MS Clinic quickly added to my fears: patients in wheel chairs, canes and severe limps, and swollen feet surrounded me. 

I was shown scans of lesions on my brain, and was bombarded with charts and statistics of what would be probable in my near future: further limitations of movement, loss of balance, extreme fatigue and vision impairments. “You have to avoid stress as much as you can,” advised one neurologist.

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“You try relaxing after someone tells you that your hopes and dreams may have to be put on hold because of some inexplicable disease,” I wanted to scream. And if that wasn’t enough to stress me out, he strongly urged me to take medication as soon as possible – costly injections that would suppress my immune system and could cause depression and long lasting flu-like symptoms. And this wasn’t even a cure.

When I got home, I dropped my bags in the middle of the hallway, and dragged myself to the kitchen. When I reached the full length mirror leaning against the wall, I just stood in front of my reflection. My watery eyes were immediately drawn downwards to my legs. By that time, my flexibility had improved and my legs had been working better than they had the month before. I wiggled my toes in my ankle length socks, and then spun myself around. And somehow, I found myself smiling through my tears.

helene and i dancing

Something about being able to slip and slide on my kitchen tiles without any strain felt so freeing. And I promised myself that while I had my legs and was able to move them, I was not going to take them for granted again. I was not comfortable with the thought of taking any harsh medications, and was determined to find alternative methods to improve my health. I started reading about how other MS patients had drastically improved their condition through diet, low stress environments and exercise.

Within a couple of weeks, I started a body cleanse and was choosing my food more carefully with the help of a naturopath. I was also slowly lightening my workload. Now it was just exercise that I needed to fit in. The problem was that I was never into sports, and though I had a gym membership, I could never maintain a regular schedule to stick to.

renee and i dancing

“What else do you do that’s active?” a friend asked me. I mentioned salsa dancing without much confidence. Up to that point, I had been so frustrated with dancing, always comparing myself to others who moved so effortlessly or had been dancing since they were kids. But when I thought again about the months when movement seemed so difficult, I felt so embarrassed. Here I was complaining about not looking like Fred Astaire (or Ginger Rogers) on the dance floor, when there were people who didn’t even have the opportunity to try to dance because of serious medical impairments.

The more I appreciated being able to dance, the more I started to really enjoy it. And soon, it became a kind of addiction to me, a healthy one. In fact, dancing has been like medicine to me. It is helping to strengthen my bones, redevelop my flexibility, and improve my balance and coordination. This has helped take the strain off of many of my joints and is improving my reflexes. When dancing, my core muscles are constantly engaged and slowly being strengthened. This helps to prevent all kinds of other possible injuries.

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With MS comes an extreme fatigue that often makes it difficult for me to concentrate on one activity for a long time. But dancing has helped me regain this focus because it challenges my mind as well as my body. Memorizing and synchronizing steps and patterns, and coordinating this with music and a partner, is great exercise for the mind. This mind-body connection also helps to strengthen my central nervous system, which is also being affected by MS. In addition, dancing for long periods of time increases my heart rate, which leads to increased blood flow to the brain. This means greater production of endorphins that help me avoid depression and stress, two of the greatest strains on the immune system.

Multiple Sclerosis is a disease in which the immune system is attacked because the body mistakenly thinks the system is foreign and harmful. Because dancing allows me to release stress and have fun, it also helps to slow down this destruction process.

Furthermore, dancing has taken me to places such as New York, Cuba, Mexico, and Argentina.  And it has connected me to people who I would never have otherwise met. It has pulled me out of the stifling fear that overcame me in the doctor’s waiting room, and surrounds me with a passion for life that is so liberating.

I have had to make life changes to compensate for the fatigue and numbness that often overcome me. Yet, dancing has been able to touch me from deep within. And I consider the tingles a reminder for me to continue to step out proudly on life’s dance floor – hips swinging, shoulders shimmying and soul smiling.

me smile

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