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When I Remember Life as a Dancer, Before My Health Challenges

I remember playing outside. In elementary school, I would bike around our neighborhood for hours. I would walk down to the school playground and spend the whole afternoon there. I would bike, roller blade, and walk long distances in our area, and discover a whole new world trenching through the deep woods, creating whole new worlds and games.

I remember being a part of a team and the friendships I shared. I would swing and hit a softball into outfield, and run full out to first, rounding the base to second with all my muscles ready to expend that energy again. I was not great at basketball. But I could spend hours with my team shooting and missing and laughing at my ineptitude, only to try again and get a lucky shot. In the summer, I swam, whether on a team or for play. I learned new strokes and practiced swimming great lengths, but never getting a prize. I could dive, and belly flop, and play Marco Polo for days on end with my closest friends and family.

And I danced. I started when I was three and continued for 15 years, even working in the studio during college. The feeling of being on stage is like no other. I would dance and turn and leap until I was so red in the face and I could barely breathe.

A ballerina in her red costume, dancing.

I lived for the stretch of my muscles and the feeling of pushing myself that much farther in reach of that unattainable goal. It wasn’t the achievement, it was the attempt that I lived for. I can still close my eyes and hear the music, a miniature ballerina dancing elegantly in my mind. I can see her true strength; I can see how much work she is putting in. I can imagine feeling the exhaustion and strength in my muscles, the joy I have known seemingly in a whole other life.

I don’t walk anymore. I don’t run, I don’t jump. Often it hurts just to stand. I have to sit on a stool to cook something on a stove, and moved a table into the kitchen so I can sit for prep work. I am in physical therapy (PT) for my sacroiliac joints. It’s not the PT I did after my knee surgery when I was still dancing. There’s no riding a stationary bike or pushing weights with my legs. It’s mostly massage, and tensing certain muscles. It’s an understatement to call it low impact.

Last summer, I tried to swim again. I didn’t get very far. My body doesn’t move the way I tell it to, and even when I try to push past the pain it is too impossible to try for long. Simple things, like climbing a set of stairs, or walking leisurely through the grocery store, have become impossible for me. I always ride the elevator, and I ride the scooter carts now.

A former ballerina, older, using a walker.

In my mind I am still that passionate, playful teen who lifted the heavy boxes when we moved and never met a physical task she wouldn’t try. In reality I spend most of my time on the couch or in my bed. My hobbies have become stationary, like reading, watching movies, and coloring. My husband does most of the driving, and carries my bags for me when I go to class. He cooks most of our meals, not because I won’t cook, but because he knows it is difficult for me.

It is bizarre sometimes when I wake up in the morning out of a dream where I am dancing on stage. I still remember what my body felt like then. I remember feeling the strength and certainty in my body, knowing I can walk in the mall, or play a game of soccer, or move a piece of furniture without even thinking. I close my eyes and I am there, in my body of the past, only to open them and remember there’s not much left I can do.

It is my new normal, and I hate it.

It is my new normal, but I can’t help but try to revolt.

It is my new normal, and I’ll never have the old normal again.

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