When asked as a child to draw a dancer the figure of a tall, slender, fair-skinned woman in a leotard and pointe shoes would start to take form with my crayons. The illustrated dancer would stand tall on one foot with her other leg stretched high. My visions of dancers looked identical to my physique and ability.
As a child, I was able to attend ballet class performing leaps and pirouettes. In high school. I recreated Martha Graham’s Lamentation for a class performance without challenges or barriers. As an adventurous college freshman, I had the ability to attempt novel forms of dance such as capoeira (Brazilian dance fighting) and bellydancing. Throughout my adult life, I found ways to remain active in the dance world through attending local dance performances and community classes.
For me, dance has forever been a form of self-expression, creativity, and freedom. Lost in the movement and in tune with my body, I could move without boundaries. Dance was deep rooted in communication, community building, and celebration.
Two years ago, I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS). It was the evening before my 32rd birthday. I entered the on-ramp to the 280 into a sea of red brake lights. It was my typical commute home to the city from East Palo Alto. As my foot pulsed on the brake a sudden wave of symptoms overcame me.
Growing up, when you made a promise, you recited the phrase, “Cross my heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye.” Subconsciously my body was making a promise as a sharp pain erupted in my eye. My vision became altered and the cars beside me became a giant blur of a tidal wave. Illogically, I began to rationalize what was occuring. On hot days, the heat from the asphalt can be seen waving over the road pavement. “That must be what it is,” I told myself. However, it was early March in the San Francisco Bay Area. The temperature could not have been more than 60 degrees outside.
Next came the pins and needles in my hands and feet. I felt as if someone had a miniature voodoo doll shaped as myself was stabbing me repeatedly with a sewing pin. Rationalizing the fear, I told myself, “Wow, I must have really pissed someone off.”
With each mile I drove, my body seemed to be slowly breaking down. My right arm became increasingly weak. I began to doubt if I was going to make it home. “Should I pull over? Should I call 911? What is happening?” Reflecting back, while I should have pulled over and called for support, I found the strength within to continue driving.
Despite my Willy Wonka vision and my voodoo pierced soul, I arrived home. I laid down, closed my eyes, and hoped that this psychedelic dream would end when I opened my eyes in the morning; but I had already fallen down the rabbit hole.
I woke up at the bottom of the rabbit hole in a continued state of a psychedelic dream. The tingling, numbness, and exacerbated weakness in my right arm continued without relief. A new symptom appeared several days after the initial incident. Concrete felt as if it had been injected into my muscles. The stiffness created a brittle sensation in which I felt like my joints could snap at any given moment.
Due to the loss of feeling on my right side, consistent tingling, stiffness, and motor coordination/balance difficulties, I quit dancing. I stopped dancing because I lost control of my body. Thinking back to my drawing as a child, I no longer matched the vision of a dancer. With each dance class that I encountered, it was for adults who did not have disabilities. My love for dance began to fade as I was now excluded from this community that I once gave my heart to.
In early 2020, I received an email from Dance for All Bodies, seeking volunteers to support the growth of their organization. The idea of a dance organization that stems from adapting dance was novel to me. A dancer no longer had to look like the one in my drawing as a child. The mission of Dance for All Bodies is “to dismantle the notion that dance is only for the non-disabled and to spread the joy of dance to all bodies.”
After my first dance class in two years with Janpi Star in Salsa, the class gave me the opportunity to learn about my body again. The space was inclusive and non-judgmental and opened my eyes that dancing does not always have to be two feet on the ground. I was in tune with my body and though I have to dance seated in order to maintain coordination and balance, I was able to dance freely. Dance for All Bodies views its participants as dancers, not patients, disabled, or victims. Dance is utilized to create community, respect, inclusiveness, and creativity by supporting participants to express emotions, relieve stress, and mitigate isolation. Dance for All Bodies lifts spirits, creates a positive vibe, and empowers its dancers.
Alice Sheppard, a choreographer and dancer who is disabled, writes in her “Intersectional Disability Arts Manifesto,” “Disability is more than the deficit of diagnosis. It is an aesthetic, a series of intersecting cultures and a creative force.” Joining Dance for All Bodies has been a way for me to gain back my love of dance through adapted classes. I can dance seated and continue to feel a sense of creative expression and freedom. Dance for All Bodies allows me to share the love of dance with people of all abilities to regain their desire of creative expression no matter the distance their body can go.