Dancing with Parkinson’s

When Guy de Maupassant wrote “The Minuet” he wasn’t thinking of me. When I read it when I was a girl, I was touched most extremely. The image of the old couple dancing in the park and the young reporter watching them never left me. I took it with me to my first apartment on Cornelia Street, my acting years, the relationships I had during those years, getting married, my years of young motherhood in Vermont, moving to Israel, and finally growing old in Israel, putting on my ballet slippers and dancing the Minuet.

In 2010, I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Doctors don’t know how to cure Parkinson’s. They know how to slow down its progress. For this I was given Azilect. I’ve never had side effects from it, so it’s okay.

I had a doctor I liked. She’s young, friendly, modern. In the summer of 2015, I went for an appointment. It had been a hectic busy summer with family visiting from overseas. My right side felt a little stiff and I was wearing my white sneakers which are heavy on my feet. My doctor noticed the stiffness. She prescribed Dopicar. I took it for 10 days and it made me nauseous. I thought she said to take it 3x a day. I took it twice a day. But she later said she’d told me to start out taking it once a day. “Take it before you go to sleep. Then you’ll be sleeping when you have the nauseousness,” she said. I knew this wouldn’t work for me because if I’m nauseous, I’m up all night, sitting in the bathroom and putting off the moment I throw up.

I wish I could say I was brave enough to throw the pills away. But I left them in the drawer and didn’t take them. Instead I went to a store called ‘Isradance’ and bought a pair of ballet slippers. My birthday was coming up and my husband bought me a cassette player. I have some cassettes from the past. The first few days I danced to Chopin’s ‘Polonaises’ and did ballet exercises.

My children were critical of my decision not to take the Dopicar. They told me stories of someone’s mother who got up from her wheelchair and walked after taking Dopicar. One of my daughters did research and thought Dopicar the best of what’s available. My son stuck to his argument, you’ll have to take it someday. My husband tried to persuade my kids by telling them how sick I was and how I lost weight and couldn’t eat. My daughters eventually came around, although one of them kept the idea of Dopicar on a shelf just in case and my son held his ground.

Meanwhile, I began looking around for people who felt as I do.

The first colleague I found was Howard Shifke, who has a website: fightingparkinsonsdrugfree. In one of his articles he wrote, “Stress exacerbates Parkinson’s.” This is so true, and I’m prone to anxiety and stress. The other day I was waiting at the bus stop for a bus to take me to a store where I’d exchange a shirt I’d bought for the same shirt in a smaller size. The bus was long in coming. My hand began to shake.

We all have in our heads a blood brain barrier that won’t let most medicines in. Insulin is an exception. So scientists and researchers come up with stronger and stronger medicines. That’s what I think of with Dopicar. I picture it laying outside my blood brain barrier like a puddle of mud.

One day, while swirling down the Newsfeed of Facebook I came across a video by Rafi Eldor, who proposed that ballroom dancing could fight Parkinson’s along with the medication he takes. I was very excited and communicated with him. Best of all, he’s right here in Israel. “I would like to be a dancer, not a Parkinson’s patient,” he says. He illustrates a point. He says that with Parkinson’s, he takes small steps, but with dancing you take wide sweeping steps. I haven’t met him or found out where the ballroom dancing takes place, but that can be for the future.

I didn’t pursue a meeting because I found my own place to dance. I belong to a Moadon (Senior Citizens Center). Our Moadon is a brightly colored place with Yeminite pottery, Yeminite wedding attire on display, paintings on the walls. On Thursdays, we do a Kabbalat Shabbat. It includes lighting candles, singing Shabbat songs, and DANCING.

I once studied with Nina Fonaroff, a ballet teacher, for about six months. She insisted you come three times a week. I was 26, the exercises made me feel wonderful, and luckily I remember them.

Nina Fonaroff wasn’t my only connection to dance. My cousin Linda began taking tap dance lessons when she was 3. They would come to visit and she would dance for us a-top a kitchen chair.

When I was 19 and Linda 18, she got a job dancing in a nightclub. They needed one more girl for the chorus line and I tried out. I got the job, a ten-day gig in Atlantic City. “Go home and teach her the steps,” the man who’d hired me said. She kept me up till 4 a.m. and I learned the dances.

My next job was in Claire Tree Major’s Touring Children’s Theatre. I had the part of the princess in “Puss In Boots,” and danced to the music of “The Sleeping Beauty” ballet.

Years later, I played the lead in an off-Broadway production of “The Red Shoes” and danced.

I never really thought I have a connection to dance but I guess I do.

In my everyday life, I try to make use of the grand plie. I also have osteoporosis and two little bones in my back are pointing the wrong way or are in the wrong position — I don’t know what, but it’s important not to bend the back, but to go down gradually in a ballet second position, i.e., legs spread apart and back straight.

I remember during the Vietnam War on the news, you would see old Vietnamese men crouching not bending. I don’t do yoga or any exercises that involve stretching because my back begins to hurt.

So these days, I’m doing ballet exercises at home and dancing once a week at the Moadon. When I walk in the street, I tell my right foot to follow my left foot, to do what that foot does. My left side has always been more gamish (supple, graceful). A pro-med proponent warned me that my left side will eventually be stiff too. This thought fills me with terror. But it doesn’t push me to take medicine my body rejects.

Do I know what’s going to happen in the future? Is my son right that I’ll eventually have to take pills? I hope not. I’ll do my best not to swallow pills that make me sick. I’ll do my best to keep dancing.

About the Author
Born in the U.S., Lois Michal Unger made aliya in 1982. She is a well known poet in Israel and internationally. She is the author of 7 books including, White Rain in Jerusalem, The Glass Lies Shattered All Around and How Country Music Helped Me to Make Aliya, a novella. Her poems have been published in The Jerusalem Post as well as many literary magazines throughout the world. Her work and has been translated into Hebrew, Italian, Russian and Hungarian. Before making aliya she wrote a recipe column for the Chronicle newspaper in Vermont. Her latest book Back to Back: Two Poets Living Under One Roof is co-authored with her husband Elazar.
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