Back to Dance with RA: 5 Questions with Julia Chayko

Patient Expert
Damon Calderwood

Julia Chayko is a Canadian actress and writer from British Columbia, who lives with rheumatoid arthritis (RA). The condition has limited her ability to fully pursue her career in the performing arts and she had to give up dance. However, Julia, 46, recently found another way to get back to the dance that she loves.

HealthCentral (HC): Please tell us a bit about yourself.

Julia: I am 46 years young and live on the beautiful west coast in Vancouver, British Columbia. I am an actress and writer and am mostly known for The Old Lady in My Bones, my blog about living life with RA. I discovered the stage when I was 12 years old and I never left. I spent years taking dance classes, auditioning, and winning roles in several local productions.

HC: How has rheumatoid arthritis affected your life?

Julia: I was diagnosed with RA when I was 38 years old. I was shocked. I was a dancer and actress — a young, healthy, and fit woman. I knew that RA didn't discriminate. I knew it could happen to anyone at any time — I just didn't think it could happen to me. Luckily, it was caught early, I started treatment, and I am relatively stable. I have my good days and my bad days, but am always grateful for the care I receive, and the ability to live life on my own terms with chronic illness.

Dance and theatre life is time consuming and rehearsals can be long and grueling. I had to take a break from theater for a couple of years while I learned to live with the new rhythm of chronic illness. I quit dance classes all together and changed from full-time work to part-time.

I started writing as a kid and always knew I would go back to it someday. With the arrival of RA, "someday" came a lot sooner than I thought. My great-grandmother always said I would be a writer — it wasn't lost on me that my first submission and my first publication was a story about her.

Back to Dance with RA: 5 Questions with Julia Chayko-JuliaOkanagan
Julia Chayko. Caption: Julia in Okanagan valley.

HC: What does dance mean to you?

Julia: Dance was my first love, long before theater and writing. I stopped ballet years before my RA diagnosis, simply because it was hard on an aging body. I started exploring other forms of dance such as belly dance, swing, flamenco — and then I discovered salsa. Salsa was like travelling to an exotic country every night. Then RA rudely cut in, and I found myself sitting on the sidelines.

I missed the challenge of manipulating my body, the power, strength and flexibility. I missed the music that took me to new places, the sultry glitter of salsa shoes and the rush of adrenaline when conquering a new and complicated step. I considered the dance studio my second home — now it was only a place I used to live.

HC: You recently found a way to incorporate dance into your life in a new way. Please tell us about that.

Julia: I was able to return to the stage after finding a way to manage my disease, but I was never able to get back to the dance studio in the same capacity. I lost most of my stamina and strength to the whims of RA, but I was determined to salvage a piece of that life if I could. I started by registering for a weekly ballroom dance class with my partner. Ballroom dancing was easier on my joints and since it was only once a week, there wasn't a lot of pressure. I knew most of the dances, so it was easy for me to glide across the floor and enjoy a passion with someone I love.

My partner was offered an opportunity to direct a Christmas pantomime and needed a choreographer for the musical numbers. It was a way for me to return to the dance world. It challenged me to create unique movements for specific characters and bring life to the knowledge I'd collected over the years. The best part of the whole project was that partial proceeds were donated to Cassie and Friends Society, an organization that supports kids living with JIA (juvenile arthritis) and other rheumatic diseases. I was determined to show kids with JIA that anything is possible.

HC: What's next for you?

Julia: I am always looking for the next show, the next story, the next challenge in my life. This year I plan on taking a voluntary break from theater, so I can finish up two novels I've been writing. I look forward to creating more stories, traveling with my partner, continuing my journey of advocacy and wellness, and living the best life I can by being the inspiration instead of pursuing it.

Back to Dance with RA: 5 Questions with Julia Chayko-JuliaBritishColumbia
Julia Chayko. Caption: Julia on the sunshine coast of British Columbia.

Read more of Julia’s work on her blog The Old Lady in My Bones, as well as CreakyJoints and her contribution in the book Real Life Diaries: Living with Rheumatic Disease.

See more helpful articles:

A Free Spirit With Rheumatoid Arthritis: an Interview with Gabi Rojas

The Benefits of Zumba for RA

Adapting to Rheumatoid Arthritis