Meet Mary Fran Wiley’s Project

sp-adBallet saved me. Dance was medicine when nothing else was working.

I took my first ballet class since childhood on February 16, 2015 and I haven’t stopped since. I’m quite the unlikely ballerina – I’m a bit curvy and I suffer from a rare, progressive and incurable pain disorder called Complex Regional Pain Syndrome. It causes constant, intense pain even from a gentle breeze or soft fabric. The treatments I underwent caused my left leg to feel heavier and not feel the floor.

Ballet gave me the opportunity to start taking my body back. The building of the movements throughout class, the repetition of exercises on each side allowed me to relearn how to engage the muscles on the left side of my body. The stronger I got, the less secondary pain I had started to go away. I was able to walk and get through my day with more confidence.

I want to help others who suffer from pain disorders find this strength and freedom, so I am starting an organization to do just that. Hope.Dance will be focused on creating dance classes rooted in traditional dance forms like ballet and tap for pain sufferers. Using a model similar to the English National Ballet’s Parkinson’s classes, I want to create classes that are welcoming and beneficial. A place where the pain can melt away and no one feels like a burden on the rest of the class or be afraid if there are movements they can’t do.

To get started and before I can start fundraising, I need to create the legal entity for the organization (legal fees, state fees). I’m selling shirts to help cover these costs and maybe even help rent a studio for my first class.  If you don’t want a shirt, I have also set up a GoFundMe page.

The goal is to sell 100 shirts. If I hit that goal, I will raffle off a custom-made ballet skirt to one of the people who either bought a shirt or shared the campaign on social media. To enter the giveaway, send your order number or a screenshot of your social media share to with the subject “Sweat and Pirouettes Raffle.”

Personal Stories: How Dancing Saved My Life

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There is no easy way to start my personal ballet story.

My name is Lucia, I’m 24 years old, and I’ve never dance before in my life. A couple of years ago my father took of,f leaving me alone: my mother is really sick and she is under medical attention 24/7.

A lot of things had happen to me through the years and on 2014 I though life was over for me. I was alone, struggling with a lot of stuff, including cocaine addiction. It wasn’t until earlier this year that I found by coincidence a ballet video of an adult dancer that I considered to take classes. I was literally sinking, hopeless, sad, I was all in all: an addict. As my addiction grew my health was very bad. My nose started to bleed, I lost so much weight I look like a skeleton. I knew I needed a change but I couldn’t figure it out.

Days passed and that video was stuck my head and the song too! It wasn’t until then that I realized that may be if I picked something, a hobby or something else I could get better. I started ballet classes everyday for 2 hours. And I’ve been clean since the first day I started. I can’t believe I’m healthy, I’m happy and full of energy.

Ballet gave me the strength I needed. It gave me hope, it made me push myself harder it made me test my limits. I’ve never been happier in my entire life, ballet saved me. Ballet was the hand that saved me when I was drowning and nobody else was there. That’s my story.

I’m currently taking 12 ballet hours per week and looking forward for more. NOTHING is impossible if you try hard enough.

Personal Stories: Army to Arabesque

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My story is one part satisfaction, one part regret, and hopefully one part encouragement!

I took my first ballet class at age 27, after returning from 18 months in Kuwait in the Army. My sister grew up taking ice skating and some ballet, but I never would have thought of trying ballet as a teenager for fear of what my family and friends would think. After graduating West Point and serving in a wartime environment, I felt I had enough “man cred” to go try something very different than the sports or music I had grown up doing. Plus I was moving to a new city where nobody knew me anyway.

I had seen the Nutcracker a couple of years before, and thought more seriously about giving it a try once I was finished with the Kuwait tour and back in the US. If nothing else, I would get more flexible, strong, and work new muscles that weren’t used in the running or weightlifting which I would usually do. Plus meeting some people in a new city where I didn’t know anybody couldn’t hurt.

I joined a class at an arts center in St. Louis that had a lot of dance and other performing arts classes. The teacher was great – it was more of a beginner-intermediate class with some challenging stretches and pilates exercises in between barre and center. My legs and back felt like a million bucks the day after classes. This studio had a teen performance company, but no adult performing opportunities as far as I knew. Not that I was good enough necessarily, but as I approach age 40 I wish I would have tried harder to improve enough to have a performing role in something, somewhere, no matter how small. If I had it to do over again I would have tried to become a regular student at studios with regular performances or recitals and see where that ended up.

I read many stories where guys are in demand and get a lot of encouragement wherever they start classes, but I never really experienced it myself! Maybe I was no good, too old, or just at a studio where adult classes were more for fitness rather than any other goals. Over a couple years I think one other student told me that I was pretty good, a couple of them wondered why I was taking the class, and another older student said I had a lot of courage (I don’t think she was being complimentary – it was more in the style of “You have a lot of courage to wear THAT in public…”) I did overhear some students once say they liked it when guys were in the class, so that was good.

When you are usually the only guy, you sometimes feel like you are invading the ladies’ space and that some of them probably wish you weren’t there. I had to take a semester off after a severe ankle sprain I got while running on city streets near potholes, but I still managed about six semesters before getting married and stopping ballet. I had my girlfriend come watch one of the observation classes, but she didn’t like the idea of me doing ballet—it was a big turnoff for her, so I stopped as we got more serious. At the time I didn’t think I would miss it much. In hindsight I wish I would have made it more clear that I enjoyed it and wished to keep doing it.

Now that I have a few kids I don’t have the time or money for regular classes. I figure my daughter is a more worthy recipient of dance classes right now anyway, as her whole future is in front of her. But, I do manage to take drop-in classes when I am out of town for work, and I look forward to the opportunity to do so. I routinely visit the DC area and have found some good adult classes at Maryland Youth Ballet, Russell Ballet and Kintz Mejia Ballet. In other jobs, I would visit studios in Kansas City and San Jose. The teachers have been good and encouraging and I get something out of the classes every time. I also sneak in some practice at home when I can.
In order to get any better I realize I need to work hard at my weaknesses – for years I have been terrible at pirouettes, but last week I did some pretty good ones at home, much to my surprise. We’ll see if I can replicate them in the next class!! In recent weeks I lost a few pounds, done more plank exercises, and also did more hamstring curls at the gym—an exercise I hadn’t done in years. In high school I found the hamstring curls seemed to help my balance as a baseball pitcher, so maybe they help balancing in ballet? I also spotted a little differently – I think I had been waiting too long to turn my head, and lost balance as a result. Now I move my head earlier to get my spot, and my body follows better, I think. If I could routinely pull off single pirouettes without falling out of them I would be thrilled.
What else am I working on? Turns, in general – I can do pique turns all day but pirouettes have usually been awful, and I could never figure out why. Also my turnout is horrible once my legs are straight – maybe it is my hip structure. I’ve tried every different kind of stretch that I can find for turnout. Once I start a plie my turnout is much better. And, I would like to have better balance across the board. I have a very hard time balancing on releve on a single foot, but I can hold two-foot releves all day. (If anyone else has suggestions on improving at these particular things, let me know!) I also seem to have trouble remembering complex combinations in some of the classes I take – I lose track what direction to turn, what foot should be in front or where my arms should be. I usually have to follow someone else, but then I’m slightly behind the beat. Plus, being rather tall with long legs I have a hard time keeping up with quick leg movements anyway. Maybe this comes with regular practice, or maybe trying a new class after a long day at work when the brain is already fried is a bad idea!
Am I glad I got up the courage to try ballet? Yes, very much. It was fun doing some of the steps with my little girl when she was taking her class. I also have a MUCH bigger appreciation for what I used to call “girls stuff” growing up – ballet, ice skating, gymnastics, things like that. Some of the things these athletes can do is mind-blowing. Its more impressive to me than lifting 400 pounds or running really fast, actually. I grew up playing baseball and these seem much harder. I guess it comes down to what you are raised doing – hitting is easy for me, but maybe not for someone who has danced their whole life. It’s just impressive seeing what other people can train their body to do. To other adult beginners – if you like it, keep doing it! If you want to perform, go find a place with opportunities and work towards them. Even if you try and fail, it’s better than not trying at all!

Personal Stories: My first few months in ballet

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There are many ideals to learn from ballet. I first started researching the topic in hopes to prolong the demise of my decaying body. I was a serious couch potato. I’ve just recently converted my desktop computer to a standup ‘workstation’ (it’s still just a big screen to play video games and watch TV shows on). All in all, I feel better and love what I do, which is constantly practice ballet.

The first ideal in ballet is posture. Core strength is EVERYTHING in ballet. Thus, the most important part of dancing is to activate your core. Spine stabilization allows for other muscles to be used for range of motion to lift your legs past 90 degrees, or just to balance better.

However, the classical teachings of ballet are still in practice, and I believe it is time to usher in a new wave of thought, that abdominal bracing is superior to abdominal hollowing, most notably praised by Dr. McGill. As an adult, I’m most likely not going to dance professionally, so the idea of sucking in your belly button to look pretty (and classically activate your core) are obsolete, according to recent studies. However, showing my beer belly (because I’m 30 years old and like my craft beers) is much more beneficial to spine stabilization than I ever thought possible. I use abdominal bracing when I bend over to brush my teeth over the sink. The entire concept is a revolution to the idea that we would forever be known as hunch-back computer homo sapiens. It could very well be the cure to lower back pain in the majority of adults.

The second ideal in ballet is flexibility. Witnessing those young dancers hyper extend their splits, is almost as psychologically painful as watching The Deer Hunter for the first time.

Jules Mitchell, who is developing the concept of stretching in her master thesis (soon to be a book), processes the exact nature of muscle tissue, down to sarcomeres and myosin. The idea of “tightness” is a fallacy we perpetuate over and over again when in fact we really just need to build strength in the muscles to increase range of motion. Mitchell also adds that regular stretching is not completely bad and that it does add a comfort level, so not to retreat from our maximal range of motion; however, the classical thought, yet again, could be revolutionized by this new way of thinking.

So, I’ve been researching and practicing dynamic stretching. Leg swings, arm circles, squats and lunges, all to help loosen major joints. It’s now known, that passive stretching can decrease your strength in those muscles. Thus, picture yourself doing the splits before class, and then getting yelled at for not going higher than 45 degrees in your developpe. I’ve still been putting off actually pushing my comfort level to increase my range of motion, but at least I know the proper steps, and willing to at least try.

The third ideal in ballet is to love ballet. My beginner class teamed up with the intermediates, and I was so jealous that they could so easily follow the routine. Of course, they’ve been at it longer than I, but WOW! They do the little mimicry with half motions of their arms and legs to get the muscle memory going, and all of a sudden, they can either hear it, see it, or feel it. Me, on the other hand, I was just trying to follow them. I think the ideal to love what you do, is paramount to everything in life.

I might look kind of odd when I’m standing at work doing rond de jambe, and releve, but I love ballet! It is such a beautiful display of art, that when standing at my standing ‘workstation’ I find myself in arabesque, and perfecting my port de bras… and I could care less who looks in on me dancing to my heart’s content.

Guest Post: Inactive Recovery

5281539131_7b6bd70ed3_zInactive Recovery. Two words that can drive me in to a melt down that challenges any a toddler can throw.

Because it starts as nothing.  It stats as twinge after class. A little extra ache after a long day. So you take a few ibuprofen and maybe cut down a class or two. But it’s not helping. In fact, it’s getting worse, from a nagging little thing to a searing pain any time you jump, or do a little too much walking. It hurts when you’re doing nothing at all.

So you go to your doctor. He suggests more rest, more ibuprofen, and to let your pain be your guide. But what he doesn’t understand is that you are a  warrior, you are an athlete. You push harder, work harder and live with pain daily. You welcome it. It’s proof that you’re working hard enough.

But it’s not getting better. This time there are x-rays, and a walking boot, to slow you down. So you do the math, and start calculating how to use the rest of your muscles without using that one part of that one leg. You’re swimming and doing crunches, because those seem okay.

You’re still going to class, and just trying to hide the injury. If your teachers find out, they might not let you take class. That would be the worst. Because you just made pointe. Or mastered a decent pirouette. You’re not ready to admit defeat. You’re careful not to limp out of class, and don’t cry until you get to your car.

You don’t tell your friends, or write about it on social media, you don’t want word to get out. You don’t want the sympathy, or the empathy, you want to be back in the studio, working.

So you go to your doctor again. You discuss your fairly vague diagnosis, something about a tired tendon, and over use. Something non-specific, and there’s only one real treatment plan. Inactive recovery.

Inactive recovery means doing nothing. Inactive recovery means not fighting through it, but accepting and embracing the fact that the best thing you can do is nothing. Sit more. Walk less. There’s no war, no challenging choreography to cover, no death defying physical feat. There is nothing to do but wait.

And it’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done as a dancer.

Image via Flickr User Quinn Dombrowski