On Nutcrackers and Physical Ability*
*Dedicated to Marsha Fay Knight and Dr. Tamara Miller, my Ballet and MS Drosselmeyers, respectively
For a good portion of my life, I was a dancer - a trained one. This is not to say that I no longer relish an impromptu dance party. It’s just that I associate technical dance with an earlier version of myself, a version that spent hours at the ballet barre in order to hone those artistic skills. My gateway into this world can be attributed to a single production: The Nutcracker. In my hometown, Tchaikovsky’s famous ballet receives a grand actualization every four years at the University of Wyoming. It is cast with students from the Theatre and Dance department, but also features many community members and is a particularly excellent opportunity for blossoming young dancers in town. That is how I found myself, at the ripe age of 9 years old, in my first classical ballet playing a little boy in the party scene. Then again at 13, as a toy soldier. By 17, I had cultivated enough proficiency to land a true ballerina role in the Act II waltz. And at 21, my Nutcracker casting came full circle when I returned to the Act I party scene as a parent. In theory, I could have continued this trend at 25. In actuality, I was not in a position to even enjoy the ballet from the audience.
My MS had been identified earlier that year and, while the first three months following the diagnosis were healthy and uneventful, the six subsequent months were riddled with relapses, rehabilitation, and recurring stays in various hospitals. When auditions for The Nutcracker occurred in the early fall, I was weathering a painful MS symptom called Lhermitte’s sign. This phenomenon, which is prompted by bending one’s head forward, elicited an electrical jolt up and down the spine that then surged into my limbs, often causing my hands to curl into themselves for an unpredictable amount of time. I was rendered pretty much useless whenever the condition occurred. There wasn’t much I could do except to breathe through the pain and wait until it passed. Seeing how Lhermitte’s delivers a physical hindrance, but is brought about by a physical movement, participating in a physical performance like a ballet was out of the question.
When Lhermitte’s sign showed up the first time, it occurred within a panoply of other typical MS symptoms like pins and needles in the extremities. I had experienced the tingling with my initial relapse. As such, the return of those symptoms did not signify a new relapse. However, the presence of something different, and something so very painful at that, did flag the potential for advancing MS activity. One MRI later, the relapse was confirmed and a 5-day treatment plan of solu-medrol steroid infusions was prescribed to nip it in the bud. A few weeks later, Lhermitte’s returned, this time accompanied by weakness and a lack of coordination in my right arm. The relapse following that one affected the use of my left arm and right leg. The relapse after that sapped the strength and function from my right arm and left leg. By the time The Nutcracker was in performance, I had received four different relapse treatments (each increasing in the level of severity and risk), had undergone three hospital admissions (one of which was still underway), and had devolved from an independent physical being, to a cane user, to a walker user, to a wheelchair user, to bedridden. Forget dancing in The Nutcracker, I wasn’t even in a position in which I could attend it.
I was broken, much like Clara’s nutcracker after her little brother threw it to the ground in a fit of jealousy. The difference being, a ribbon sling and some of Drosselmeyer’s magic couldn’t cure my condition. And I certainly was not in the sound emotional state where one dreams of sugarplum fairies and waltzing flowers. My recovery, both physical and psychological, would take time, patience, and determination. Luckily for me, those are all life skills that I had previously developed.
Proper ballet training (honestly, proper training in any craft) requires dedicated curation. You can’t just tie on a pair of pointe shoes and start spinning around on your toes. You have to learn the basics. You have to build the necessary strength and stamina. You have to rinse and repeat, and rinse and repeat, and rinse and repeat until you harness intellectual know-how and the inherent muscle memory. It takes commitment. It takes years. It takes heart. Thank goodness I had this history of dance training to apply to my relapse rehabilitation.
Fast forward to now, eight years and two productions of The Nutcracker later. I haven’t auditioned for either, but I have attended both. Frankly, I can’t recall what my reaction was four years ago. However, at 33, I can say that the ballet brought tears to my eyes as the orchestral strings swelled. How fortunate to have had lifelong access to this work of art. How fortunate to have received the invaluable life lessons from participating in its creation. How unbelievably fortunate to have the ability to walk up the stairs to my balcony seat and enjoy an evening at the ballet.
Happy Holidays, Dear Readers.