How rheumatoid arthritis helped Cheryl Crow discover her love for swing dancing.
Have you ever inhaled an aroma that instantly takes you back to a special time? Maybe pumpkin pie spice reminds you of Thanksgiving, or Elmer’s glue brings back kindergarten. For me, freshly cut grass will always stir up memories of Saturday morning soccer games, from when I was five years old all the way to when I was captain of my college soccer team years later.
I always imagined that I’d play at least until I had kids of my own, but my life took an unexpected turn when I was 21, right before the soccer season began. I was visiting New York City that summer when I woke up one morning feeling like there was hot glue in all my joints.
In truth, my body had started acting wacky before then. I had chronic dry eyes, lost my appetite and had a “sprained finger” that wouldn’t go away. I had seen many doctors without finding an answer.
But that morning was unlike any other—and it prompted my doctor to test for RA. When it came back positive, I was relieved to finally have an answer: My immune system was hyperactive and overachieving—which kind of fits my personality! My rheumatologist said that with early treatment, I could stay pretty active. When the first RA medication bothered my stomach, she switched me to another one—and I felt much better within a couple months.
However, my diagnosis led me to the tough decision to give up my position on the soccer team. I wanted to protect my joints and avoid anything that might compromise my recovery. It was a difficult decision because being an athlete was a huge part of my identity. Little did I know that giving up my passion would open the door to finding a new one!
A friend suggested I try swing dance classes. I was hesitant at first (did I even have sufficient grace to be a dancer?), but after a few classes, I was hooked. The music was infectious, the people friendly and the fluid movements were much easier on my joints than soccer. Plus, I still got to practice my “kicks” while doing the Charleston!
Dancing became my favorite stress relief: the musical, social and physical aspects always put me in a good mood. Over the years, I traveled to dance festivals, joined a swing dance team, and taught classes—and eventually met my husband when he signed up for an intro class. And yes, we hired a swing band for our wedding reception!
When I look back at where this started and where I ended up, I can’t help but feel fortunate that my life took this unexpected turn. Sure, the smell of freshly cut grass still makes me nostalgic for the soccer field at times. RA can take away something from all of us, but if we’re open to new possibilities, we just might be lucky enough to find something even better.
Cheryl’s tips for keeping optimism alive
Get a goal.
Of course, you have treatment goals—relieving pain and stopping joint damage—but you also need a life goal, something to strive for. I’ll never forget when my rheumatologist, Dr. Jennifer Gorman, said, “My goal is to have you dancing 80 years from now!”
When you hit a snag—improvise!
When I feel a twinge on the dance floor, I take a break and enjoy the music and conversation. If I’m having a particularly sore evening, I’ll ask my partner not to do certain moves that can cause hand pain.
Listen to your body!
Pay attention to changes and don’t just “live with” the pain. For example, when my feet started hurting after dancing for a short time, I knew something was wrong. I told my doctor and we decided it was time to try another medication.
Live life with enthusiasm.
My punctuation mark of preference is the exclamation point! I started a blog called “The Enthusiastic Life” (theenthusiasticlife.wordpress.com) to chronicle my career in occupational therapy and my hobbies like swing dancing and cooking. For me, social media is a great way to share my thoughts and connect with others who have RA.