The Dance of Rheumatoid Arthritis

Patient Expert

_See the accompanying comic _

Several months back, I wrote a hypothetical post imagining what would happen if the popular reality TV show The Bachelorette featured a young single gal who happened to have RA.   I myself have no desire to go on The Bachelorette, but there is one reality TV series that I secretly fantasize about being on: Dancing with the Stars.

I have always loved dancing, and after spending a week in Buenos Aires last year, I came home completely enamored with the Argentine Tango and was determined to learn how to do it.   I found a multitude of places in New York City that offered classes in tango and ballroom, but my hectic schedule and some lingering doubts about whether I could really pull it off stopped me from pursuing it. I may love wearing heels, but dancing in them for an hour is a whole other story.

Instead, I have indulged my dancing fantasy by tuning in to watch unwitting stars tame the tango, conquer the quickstep and rule the rumba from the comfort of my couch, pesky feet and toes propped up on a pillow. Still, every time I sit down to watch an episode, I can't help but daydream about what it would be like if I was on the show. Clearly, my first hurdle would be the obvious disqualifier that I am not a celebrity, but let's put that aside for a moment.

I'm feeling better these days and managing my RA, but learning to dance is incredibly demanding, even punishing, on a physical level. Many healthy contestants on the show end up with injuries, some serious, due to the relentless schedule and the toll it can take on vulnerable joints and muscles- not a good thing if you have an immune system that essentially eats your joints.   Though my rheumatologist was always supportive of my adventurous trips abroad, I can only imagine what she would say if I showed up asking for a battle plan to immerse myself in the equivalent of a ballroom dancing boot camp. I have a feeling a serious eyebrow would be raised.

On the other hand, Heather Mills (formerly Heather Mills McCartney), who has a prosthetic leg, was a contestant on the show several seasons ago.   She performed well, and it was exciting to watch a contestant with different abilities take on some pretty daring tricks in her dances. Her fearlessness in taking on difficult combinations and choreography despite her prosthetic leg brought awareness and inspiration to many people with and without disabilities. Just like with The Bachelorette, it's tempting to think about what this kind of exposure could do for a mostly invisible illness like RA.

Each episode includes footage from the week of rehearsals, showcasing the backstage dramas, struggles and frustrations of the contestants as they attempt to learn a new dance, sometimes two, each week. If the show featured someone living with an autoimmune disease whose hallmarks are painful, inflamed joints and searing fatigue, both of which can flare up at the flip of a switch, the awareness factor for that disease would go through the roof!

Obviously, I'm not a real candidate for this show, but imagining myself on it did compel me to look up ballroom dance lessons in my area. A class wouldn't be as brutal as the competitive reality TV show, and I'm always up for a challenge. After all, I hate the idea of thinking something is off limits to me because I have rheumatoid arthritis. Yet, I have to admit that all that spinning around on the balls of my feet in heels, the twirls, the lifts and the dashing around would probably be a recipe for disaster even if I started out feeling my best.

Part of me would really like to go for it and sign up for a series of classes and try it out.   After climbing mountains and hiking all around the desert, tackling the tango shouldn't be so intimidating, and yet, that is exactly how I feel. Though I never learned ballroom, I grew up dancing, and it is something I used to be good at 'before.' Attempting to try it again 'after' feels rife with emotions and impossible comparisons between now and then.

For now, I'm still pondering what to do.   Having RA has taught me to be more cautious about what I put my body through, like it or not. When I push myself to my limits, my RA usually pushes back. In many ways, living with RA is a dance in and of itself, so I guess you could say I'm already learning how to do the tango- the Tango RA.

Sara is the author of the blog, The Single Gal's Guide to Rheumatoid Arthritis and a partner in the Buckle Me Up International Young Arthritis Awareness Movement.