Part 1: “Dancing has really taken me to a place of healing that I never imagined.”- Yesenia Peralta
Yesenia Peralta has always been one of those dancers who really stood out to me because of her flavor and natural movement both in her social dancing and stage performances. But her talent as a dancer has come to mean even more to me after getting to know Yesenia on a more personal level over the past few months. Through an in-depth interview with Yesenia, first conducted in July of this year,* I learned what a strong, courageous and fun loving woman lies within this dancer, this individual. Most of all, I was touched and deeply inspired by the passion for living that Yesenia shows off the dance floor as much as, if not more than, she has demonstrated in her years on the dance floor.
It is an honor to help her, through this interview, to share for the first time Yesenia’s story about her recent diagnosis with Multiple Sclerosis (MS,) and how it has affected her perspective and growth in many areas of her life. Thank you, Yesenia, for trusting me to help send your message out to all the people out there who want to know how you’re doing. I know you will continue to inspire others with your positivity and charisma wherever you go. You have definitely had a huge impact on my life from just a few months of knowing you.
*Note: This interview was conducted on July 23rd, 2012; therefore, any reference to time and location is reflective of Yesenia’s experiences up to that date.
Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me, Yesenia, especially with everything you’re going through right now.
That’s okay, girl. Like I wrote to you, la gente estan pendiente (laughs)
(Translation: the people are waiting, they are waiting to find out what is happening with me)
People know I’m sick but they don’t understand what’s going on and what my mission is in my head. But this is my moment to talk a little more personally about myself. And even though you might be asking me questions about dance here, this interview is still different than others in the past. Every interview I’ve ever done before has always been about ‘what’s next’. People are always concentrating on what is GOING to come- “Oh, when is your school going to be opening up? When is your dance company going to perform?” they always ask. It’s always about what I am GOING to be doing.
But this time, it’s a little different, you know? This is the first time I’m doing an interview since I’ve been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. And, to be honest, at first, I wasn’t interested in talking on a personal level to anyone. Three weeks ago, I would not have done this interview. A month ago, I would not have done this interview because I hadn’t found ‘my place’ yet, you know? (*see reference note at the start of the interview)
What do you think has helped you find that place a little better now?
I’m realizing that I’m doing better because dancing has really taken me to a place of healing that I never imagined. I didn’t even know that I needed dancing so much. I love dancing, and everything in my dancing career has been spectacular.
But everything kind of fell in my lap, you know? I took classes to help my brother, Ismael Otero, and my career just kind of TOOK OFF,… for almost fifteen years! I never had time to sit down and think, about… about ANYTHING to do with dancing until now. It’s like everything kind of makes sense now.
Yeah, it wasn’t until I got diagnosed with MS that I started slowly realizing how healing dancing could be as well. It’s so great that someone with your extensive dance background shares that perspective.
So you have MS as well?
Oh, I didn’t know that.
Yeah, that’s why speaking to you and hearing your story was really important to me. How did you and others around you react when you first found out about the MS?
Well, it didn’t knock me down because I didn’t really know what MS was. And my family still don’t really know what I’m going through. I’ve just been basically dealing with it on my own. When people ask if I’m okay, I say, ”Yes, I am,” because they don’t understand. All they’re going to feel is pity. But I don’t need pity. I’m just telling you how I feel. I gotta just let it out, you know what I mean (laughs)? And even though people don’t wanna react that way, it’s just human nature. And that’s why I didn’t want to talk to you before, because I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t feeling good enough to talk.
And the dancing thing was not in existence until about two weeks ago. I mean, I got back at it just in the last couple of weeks, because I was not at the point physically, to be dancing. Not that I’m dancing salsa yet. Right now, I’m dancing merengue, bachata, and reggaeton, just for exercise.
Are there certain circumstances that aggravate your symptoms, and have you found ways to help calm your symptoms?
It goes up and down, girl. I have good days and I have bad days. I might feel good, and then by the evening, I’m not feeling so great. And that’s just a day at a time. More like an hour at a time. It continues to change. I can’t walk much. My left leg is the weakest. And I get the headaches now, and the fatigue is really what has prevented me from dancing. That’s what has me on ‘sit- down- and- relax- and- enjoy- the- palm- trees’ mode. And that’s what I’m doing.
But when I have something in my heart that’s making me happy, like looking at my videos, and looking at my pictures and all my friends (smiles), and all the great, great, great times I’ve had around the world- that makes me feel better. It makes me FEEL BETTER. It doesn’t make sense, but it is what it is.
I use my support system to help me through this, even though they don’t know it. ‘Cause what I’m doing right now is for me.
I completely understand. I mean, I’m not happy that I got MS, of course. But, as strange as it sounds, I almost feel like it was a blessing in disguise.
..,because it teaches you to change your life.
Yeah, and the QUALITY of life.
So I just love that you can appreciate that. And I think it’s really powerful that someone like you, who many people already admire, can teach other people how to see this side of things, rather than concentrating on the negative.
Yeah. The negative is not me. I started looking into how I can help myself and get better. And I learned, through research, about a treatment that could only be found overseas- a stem cell treatment. Without the support of my MS specialists and my family, I decided that I needed to try to raise the money to go to Panama to get the treatment done. People thought I was crazy. But I was going with my faith. So, accompanied by my best friend John J Lalama, I went to Panama to get the treatment done. And I’m so glad I did. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done.
In the procedure, they do a mini lipo to fix damaged cells. And then, through IV, they insert the rejuvenated cells back into your body. And now, I just gotta kind of wait and see how the stem cells in my body react to fixing the ones that are damaged. Look it up girl, LOOK IT UP (smiles)!
I’m telling you, three weeks ago, I could not dance. I’m in Puerto Rico right now and this is what I think: I went to Panama to get a treatment, and I came to Puerto Rico to heal. And it’s going to happen. I feel it. (*see reference note at the start of the interview)
GIRL, I go to sleep to the birds chirping, I wake up to the birds chirping and the roosters, the dogs. And the coquis, baby!
The co… what?
The coquis! The coqui is the national frog of Puerto Rico (laughs). They make the most beautiful sound (she grabs her cell phone to play the sound of the coqui for me on one of her ringtones).
Oh… I see! (laughs)
And I am IN LOVE WITH MY ISLAND for the first time. I mean, I’ve always loved Puerto Rico. I was born here and everything. BUT, I wanna live here now, because this is my place of birth. And everything that I’ve learned over there in Jersey about salsa and Puerto Rico has been great, but now I’m learning it IN Puerto Rico.
This is where I need to be right now. This is where I’m eating healthy, drinking water, and exercising. I’m hearing great music. I’m in touch with God on a deeper level, which is what I’ve been wanting for a very long time. And He is taking care of me right now. This is why I’m able to stay here in PAR-A-DISE (smiles)! And this is the place for me. I don’t want to drink, I don’t want to party. I want peace and quiet. I’m getting to know my SELF, and I LOVE it (smiles).
I imagine you’re learning a lot about yourself?
A lot! But I didn’t know I had… what do you call that- OCD? What the hell (laughs)? Where did that come from (laughs)? I never knew I had that (laughs). But it was because I was not STILL enough to notice. I was always on the go go go go. ALWAYS, my entire life, since the age of thirteen- I’ve been working.
So now, I’m really getting to know MY self, and I love it. I love it. Physically, I’m not feeling 120% , but the stem cell treatment is gradual- little by little. So you have to have patience, and you have to have faith. And inside, I feel happy. And let me tell you girl, with God’s help, I WILL get better. I mean, I’m not exactly sure what I’m going to do with myself, to be honest. But when I do come back, stronger, people better GET READY!
(To read Part 2– “Learning about the history of salsa- how can you not be moved? I mean, it’s like planting a seed in your soul!” click here).