Cha-Cha with the Unicorns: A Ballroom Dancer’s Long Road to Glory

by Debbie Klaar, Ninja, Glitter Mama

How did I who was, ahem, “gym class challenged” end up working out at Mark Fisher Fitness?  Or maybe the bigger question is how did I, a recovering Pro/Am ballroom dancer barely able to walk wind up here?

It all began on February 2, 19…Okay, let’s suffice it to say I was a chubby child, tall for my age.  (Hmm, ya think poor self-image from early on establishes a life-long behavioral pattern of the need for outward validation?) So, I became an actress against the wishes of my family who are probably 90 years later still at 60/40.

I’ve always been a graceful klutz, lucky in my un-luck.  Why would I want to smash my thenar muscles in order to serve a volleyball? Don’t rational people dodge out of the way when balls are hurled at them? And when would I ever have to climb a rope?  I did have two factors in my favor—I had great hand-eye coordination and could hit anything tossed at me with a bat, and the uncanny ability to make balls go into holes (get your minds out of the gutter). But I could not run. You see at age 11, I got BOOBS.  Let’s take a moment here, I would like the men at MFF to go strap some kettlebells to their chest and do the damn jumping jacks. Made it out of school with a Pass/Fail in gym and thought I would never look back. Flash forward a decade or two…

One particularly lonely night with nothing going on in my acting career, I got a call from a dance franchise named after a guy who did it with a broad named Ginger: “Hey, you’ve won a free dance lesson!” and I thought, “Why not?” I love dancing and it actually does take two to tango, so there’s got to be a man involved here somewhere. Roasted sacrificial lamb anyone?  Anyone can become a ballroom teacher. Just go knock on the door of any franchise and apply, I dare you.

Am I saying that the ballroom teachers did not know how to dance?  Absolutely not. Are they unbelievably graceful athletes? Without a doubt.  Was I not dazzled? I sure was. But, did they know what muscle groups I should be using? NOPE. Not one of my teachers had the knowledge to tell me that I was injuring myself.

I am 5’8,” and wearing 3.5 heels one size too small is mandatory. At a half inch shy of 6 feet, I was advantageously taller, thereby grabbing the attention of the competition judges. I am also blessed or cursed – with hypermobility—I can pull my joints apart. This allowed me to create long bodylines on the dance floor.  (I cannot swing my legs behind my ears – that’s double jointed.)  So, let’s define what competitive dance actually is – repetitive movement at high impact performed at a defined speed, gracefully done. In my case, because I’m an overachiever, we can define it thusly: Repetitive movements + high impact + speed with hypermobile joints = boo boos gracefully done.

At a competition a few years in, I looked at my partner and said, “I cannot move my left hip. It’s locked.” He looked at me like I was cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs and told me to keep going. I’m like, “I can’t move,” and he kept dragging my ass around. Luckily it was near the end of the day.  When I was able to take off my costume, the left side of my body from my armpit to my hip flexor had hemorrhaged. I did not fall, no one hit me, but there I was a giant bruise, a hematoma without any apparent contusion. I hobbled home. And that was the end of that guy.

No doctor knew what to tell me, and my trainer at the sports club where I trained while dancing had never seen anything like this—and she was a former ballerina.  Having cared for my grandfather as he died of cancer and my grandmother as she died of Alzheimer’s, I am not a big fan of Western medicine. As a matter of fact, I have been following Eastern medicine for 15 plus years. I went to see my Qi Gung Master and acupuncturist for help. He took one look at my left side, got out the BIG needles and he wound them through my left side. Acupuncture does not hurt unless there is a release of trapped energy.  After he got done with me his exact words were, “Now you know what it feels like to have a baby.” And he told me to stop dancing. But I knew that the acupuncture treatment would help me, and after a few weeks, the bruise disappeared as mysteriously as it had appeared. And, like the Energizer bunny, I kept going and going and going.

While all this was happening, I was working with trainers at a well-known gym. I kept complaining that it felt like a rubber band was snapping inside my thighs and that my quads were numb. The trainers at looked at me blankly and assumed I was on crack. But I knew that the body’s response to something wrong is PAIN. I just needed the 411.  My iliotibial band had become severely inflamed. (Isn’t that a punk rock song?)  In fact, my iliotibial bands were so tight that they were pulling at my hip flexors and knees, hence the rubber band effect.  But I didn’t know this yet.

So, why was I training at a gym while I was getting all this cardio, you ask? Because, as with everything, the advertised dancer body is a tiny, petite, anorexic one. And, my bone structure alone precludes me from this group. I will never be a size 0. First of all because I exist, and second of all, because my skeletal structure is NOT petite, it’s actually medium – who knew?  But, we continue to try and mold ourselves into the approved image du jour.  And, I could not come in first place no matter how perfect my dancing was. On the dance floor, I was, by comparison, Gigantor.

Dramatic Pause

The Universe decided to screech my dance career to a halt when my Russian dance partner abruptly and devastatingly moved to Atlanta. So, I thought I’d take a break, lose 50 lbs. and head back with someone new.  HAH. But I continued to train at the same gym, even with the severe pain in my knees. Many days I could not walk without being aware of my knees. I could not walk up stairs or stand up or sit down without cringing. Since I could barely walk, I finally gave up dancing and stopped training at the gym.

This still left me hobbling like an old broad with only death to look forward to. What to do?  What to do?  So, I started thinking about pressure. No, not the stress we put ourselves through to “just deal with it.” But actual pressure. When we take a step, for example, pressure is put on our joints. For each extra pound of excess weight on your body, you add 3 times that amount of pressure on your knees. This means that 10 extra pounds equates to 30 pounds of pressure grinding down. And when walking up stairs, multiply your extra weight by 7. Thirty pounds of pressure just became 70 pounds. Over time, this force wears away your cartilage, leaving an area of arthritis. Now, this does not sound like fun to me, and Reynaud’s Syndrome runs in my family. So I went back to my old, reliable, stand by – beating myself up because I was fat. Sometimes I think my fat is phat.

Mambo Italiano

I know my name doesn’t sound Italian and the good reason for that is my father was born in Yugoslavia and is of German descent. My mother, however, is Italian.  We just tell my father to pretend he’s from Trieste. So one day, Mama is in the Italian deli and she sees Sergio, the owner, and he’s half his former size. She’s thinking, what the hell happened?  And, the conversation goes like this (said with a Queens accent):

“Sergio, come stai?” Sergio, how are you? (As they kiss both cheeks)

“Buono, buono e tu”  Good, good and you?

“Eh, my father always said the first 100 years are the hardest.  What happened to you?  You okay?”

“I’m great. Never been better.”

“Whatsa matter you don’t like the wife’s cooking anymore?  You’re not, God forbid, divorced are you?” she said as she blessed herself.

“No, no, I went to a nutritionist.”

“A nutritionist!  What for?”

“I dunno, I just wanted to make a change.  I lost like a 120 lbs.  She’s got me eating 6 times a day.”

“Madonne, 6 times a day! Debbie already complains that all we do is set the table.  How you do it?”

“No, it’s little bits 6 times a day. And, they got a gym with trainers – the whole nine yards.”

“You look great. Really. Is this place in Jersey?”

“Yeah, here, I’ll give you the number.”

So my mother ran home to me with the big news that we should go see this nutritionist who had worked wonders for Sergio the Skinny.  Off we went. Really, words cannot express the joy it was to go to a nutritionist with my Italian mother whose sole purpose in life is to feed the masses.  Even our guppies are overfed. We also signed up for sessions in their gym. Serendipitously (NOT).  One of the trainers at the nutritionist’s lair happened to be a ballroom dancer that I actually knew!  So, I was thrilled to start working with her. She actually was a physical therapist before she retired and knew about musculature.  During my evaluation, she told me that I supinate. Say, what?  Yes, when my foot hits the ground, it rolls outward.  Ding, ding, ding.  Could this be the cause of the pain I was experiencing?  Well, it probably contributed. She suggested that I buy insoles made by a German company to correct this.  Desperate for solutions, I did as I was told.

It Takes Two (Feet) to Tango

Why did I think putting hard, rigid insoles into my shoes was a good idea?  (I prefer other hard rigid things and not in my shoes.)  I am the most stubborn chick on the planet and I was determined to live pain free so in they went into all my shoes. It wasn’t until I got stuck in O’Hare airport for 10 hours flying home after a business trip that the new and improved problem evolved. Yes, sitting on a hard plastic chair and walking copious amounts with these inserts let me to develop….. TADA, plantar fasciitis. Ah, plantar fasciitis. Wish it on your worst enemies.

If I hadn’t been screwed before, I really was now. When you suffer from the debilitating plantar fasciitis, a number of things happen. The plantaris connects the bottom of your foot to the toes, arch etc.  And when this area becomes inflamed, it is excruciatingly painful and difficult to put any pressure on your feet.  Standing up hurts, lying down hurts—there is hardly any relief. And the plantaris is also connected to the sciatic nerve of your lower back. Isn’t it interesting how your entire body is connected? In my case, I had inflamed both feet, but the left side was worse. In order to compensate, you start to favor the least painful side, which then causes your spine and entire body to come out of alignment. It’s hard to move when you don’t have use of your feet and fear movement.

Funny thing about our bodies—we take its miraculous ability to move for granted and don’t miss it until it’s gone. I stopped training at the nutritionist and in fact stopped all movement in an attempt to heal my feet, my joints, my spine, my body.  I was wheelchair bound on and off for three years as I searched for answers.  I decided to see if a bridge could be built between Eastern and Western Medicine.

I went to a podiatrist who injected cortisone into my plantaris. (Treatments on both sides were excruciatingly painful.) I also had acupuncture, Qi Meridian Therapy and herbs. My feet did clear up a little, and I was able to get around as long as I could get through the first few moments of walking to the bathroom upon waking. But I was still suffering from acute knee pain.

I went to an orthopedic surgeon who performed an MRI. He saw no damage. Good news!  He also said that evolution has not caught up with the skeletal system and our current long life spans. It’s designed for a life span of about 50 years. Bad news!  He said I probably had arthritis.  Joint pain and weakness and fatigue (Oh my!). Can I hear an inflammation? I said, can I hear an INFLAMMATION?  I began to follow an anti-inflammatory diet by eliminating wheat, sugar and dairy.

Still, there was something nagging me in the back of my mind, as I hardly ate these things anyway. To be honest, I barely ate at all. I discovered  that, with the nutritionist, I was probably eating 960 calories a day.  What? How is it possible that I could eat so little and weigh so much?  Wait, I actually know this answer. My body thought it was crossing the desert and so held onto every damn lettuce leaf since it didn’t know if I was ever going to be fed again. If you are what you eat, then I literally might have been a bunny—and not the Playboy kind. (There is potential though!)

Arrival of The Unicorns

Now, maybe it’s because I’ve been reading all of Paulo Coelho’s novels, but I was thinking about omens and paying attention to how signs appear in your life. And, that’s when the first blip came to me of this guy who had started this gym that was a hit with the theatre folks. So I attended TEDXBroadway in February. I just had to speak to these guys.  In 15 seconds Michael Keeler and I, we laughed, we wept, we rejoiced and I told him about my fear of gyms, of things physical, of food.  And, he told me I had come to the right place.  Huh?

And he was right. Through my work with all the lovely Ninjas and with physical therapist Connor Ryan, I finally figured out that the reason for all my aches and pains was nothing more than weak muscles— muscles that were overcompensating for those weaknesses and making ligaments, tendons and fasciae do the muscle’s work. I also learned that eating is a good thing. Especially for an Italiana who loves to cook and eat.  Did I mention that I’ve been known to leave lovingly homemade baked goodies the front desk?

Thank you for allowing me to take you on my 10 year painful journey, which has led to my life right now—a life that has no physical pain, evidence that I am a strong, beautiful chicita. (Cause I’m kinda bananas.)

One last thought: Humans of the world untie—free yourself from the bonds that hold you to an unrealistic body image.


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