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Stroke Smart Magazine

May/June 2008

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Dance Your Way to Recovery: Two Women Share Their Stories

By Rowena Alegrķa

From as early as Linda Stuart of Scottsdale, Ariz., can recall, she walked on her toes. She dreamed of being a dancer a ballerina always. She wanted to teach dance and loved music.

But dancing lessons are expensive. And life carried Stuart in a different direction. She spent 27 years building a national public relations business. “I worked morning, noon and night to achieve a level of excellence and a highly regarded reputation,” she says. “I loved what I was doing.”

Although she taught aerobics classes, took the occasional dance class, and even built a tiny dance studio in her home, her dream had been relegated to a hobby. Until the stroke.

At 50, Stuart considered herself generally healthy but had begun to feel poorly. She went to see her doctor.

“I told him: ‘I feel like there’s a dark cloud of something going on inside of me. My arm, my leg feel like they weigh a thousand pounds,’” she recounts.

Her doctor told her she was just an A-type personality. He referred her to a psychiatrist and recommended she go on Valium®.

A week later, on Jan. 7, 2003, Stuart couldn’t walk. Her voice sounded, in her words, “like a drunken sailor.” Her whole right side had been affected. A friend took her to the hospital, where Stuart waited hours for a verdict: She had suffered a stroke.

After several weeks of physical, occupational and speech therapy, which Stuart calls “grueling, depleting and emotionally humiliating,” she went home.

“It was so emotional for me because I had no family in Arizona,” she says. “It was the most defining moment of my life because there was no one there [for me] except my two 18-year-old cats.”

Because Stuart couldn’t talk on the phone, she  couldn’t talk to clients. She couldn’t put on makeup and couldn’t write anything. She couldn’t even tie her shoes or zip her pants.

So Stuart cried. She went to bed telling herself that if she didn’t wake up, it was OK. She’d had a fabulous life.

“And then one fateful night,” Stuart says, “when the crying had come and left me, I rolled myself onto my chair, looked at my CDs and said, ‘Linda, you have to find a way to go forward.’”

She put Frank Sinatra’s “Young at Heart” on the stereo. And though she cried again she told herself, “You’ve got to move.”

She put the song on once more. But this time, she took her right leg in her left hand and moved it a quarter of an inch. “I felt like Rocky,” she says.

So she did it again. And again.

Then she put on Donna Summer’s “She Works Hard for the Money.” Though she was concentrating on moving her limbs, she realized that inside her throat, she was quietly singing, softly pronouncing the words to the song.

"Even though I could speak and nothing would come out, or words would come but they wouldn’t make sense, here was something better,” Stuart says. “I could say the lyrics and then they’d start to come out of my mouth."

Each time she did it, the words came out better, she says. She went from sitting in a chair to working one part of her body, and then both arm and leg, and eventually standing, trotting and jogging.

One year after her stroke, Stuart created Aerobic Boogie, a class that combines music and movement, for the in-shape, the out-of-shape and everybody in between. The foundation of the class is every movement Stuart devised on those sad, lonely nights of recovery, modified for each individual participant. The classes have been so successful that Stuart now teaches to packed houses and is working on a DVD.

“I dreamed of dancing,” she says. “I dreamed of sharing my love of dancing. And it took a stroke to bring me back to what was in my heart and soul. I count my blessings.

Stroke Survivors Get Out on the Dance Floor

Melanie Wheless, of Denver, Colo., thought she was one of the best dancers ever. She danced on high school and college teams and even competed nationally.

But one week before her 25th birthday, Wheless had a stroke. And the first time she returned to the dance floor, she felt silly and awkward. So she stopped dancing.

When Wheless went to work for National Stroke Association, her supervisor encouraged her
to put on an event for stroke survivors. Since dance was a big part of who she was prior to her stroke, there was only one way to go.

With the help of her father and brother, Wheless organized Dance for Dignity on August 15, 2007, in the Denver area. More than 200 people turned out.

“It was a huge success,” Wheless says. “Stroke survivors were pleased to have a place to go where they weren’t being judged.”

In fact, the event was so successful that the 2nd Annual Dance for Dignity has been scheduled for May 9 in Denver.

“Don’t be afraid to just get out there and be who you are,” Wheless says. “If people look at you funny, it’s their problem. If you love to dance, then get on that dance floor and go for it!”

Wheless now dreams of a nationwide dance movement for stroke survivors. For ideas on how to plan an event in your area, call National Stroke Association at (800) 787-6537.


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