How My Dance Training Is Getting Me Through the Hardest Experience of My Life

Haley Hilton (Kati Ellis, courtesy Ellis)

The stage was spinning.

The whole theater was swirling before my eyes, and nothing made sense.

I forced myself to push through the familiar choreography, which by then was in my muscle memory, feeling entirely disoriented. Up was down and down was up. Something was very wrong.

The curtain closed on the final night of Odyssey Dance Theatre's 2012 Thriller season, and my nightmare started.


Kati Ellis Photography (courtesy Ellis)

Fast forward five years, 20 doctors, one Lyme disease diagnosis, and hundreds of doses of intense IV antibiotics later, and I'm an intern writing for Dance Spirit, telling you about how my dance training is getting me through the hardest experience of my life.

A crash course on Lyme: Lyme disease is a tick-born illness that wreaks havoc on the human body. It can be a difficult disease to diagnose if you don't catch the tick on your skin, or find the bullseye rash it leaves on your body—and according to the International Lyme and Associated Diseases Society, only 50% of patients ever catch a tick or see a rash. The longer you have the disease without treating it, the harder it is to cure. (Which made it particularly unfortunate that it took me a year and a half to get diagnosed.)

For the past five years, I've lived with near-constant migraines, brain fog, forgetfulness, and confusion. Nausea and fatigue cloud every experience, and treatment makes every symptom more intense. Sadly, dancing has been out of the question.

I've been devastated. There's really no other way to say it. But amidst that utter devastation, I've come to find an inner strength, born out of a lifetime of dance training.

Here are the lessons dance taught me that helped me get through my hardest days.

1. You're tougher than you think you are.

As a dancer, there are so many rehearsals where you're certain you can't make it through another run—times when the exhaustion hits so hard it feels like your chest might burst.

Then your director yells, "One more time!" And you're back on the dance floor pouring every part of yourself into the piece again. You always have one more run in you, even when you think you don't.

During treatment, I often find myself at this same breaking point. I've been receiving heavy doses of powerful antibiotics and other medications through a catheter in my chest, called a tunneled PICC, which stays in my body for the duration of each round of treatment. Though the antibiotics are helping me heal, they also start a chain reaction that makes all of my symptoms intensify. Sitting through treatment is a test of my endurance, and then when I leave the doctor's, getting through the day becomes a game of managing a thousand obstacles. I sometimes feel certain that I can't handle one more needle, one more IV, or one more pill.

But then I remember what I learned in dance class all those years ago. I always have one more run in me. I'm tougher than I think I am.

My tunneled PICC catheter (Taylor Jarman, courtesy Jarman)

2. Be patient and the growth will come.

As a young ballet student, I was often frustrated by how slow my progress seemed to be. I would ask my teachers why I wasn't improving, and they'd inevitably tell me to be patient. They were right. You can't always see the progress you're making in the moment. But no matter how delayed it may feel, the growth always comes.

When it comes to treating chronic illness, the timeframe for healing can be excruciating. Immediate results almost never occur. In the moments when I'm feeling my most dejected, I remember the things my dance teachers taught me. In subtle ways, I see aspects of my health improve year by year. Lyme disease is taking its time on me, but the growth is coming.

3. Art makes things better.

Since I was a little girl, dance was the one thing that could make a tough day better. If I needed to work through some tricky emotions, or deal with a hard situation, I would dance it out. My problems weren't necessarily solved, but things invariably improved.

Now, even though I can't physically dance, dance is still my saving grace on my very worst days. Whether I'm teaching younger dancers or watching other performers light up the stage, art makes things better. Dance helps us feel a little less lonely—and reminds us to believe in the good things to come.

4. The Strength Comes After the Challenge

Nobody is born a professional dancer. Every student has to go through a significant amount of pain and suffering both physically and emotionally in order to reach their own personal best. That pain is the space in which a dancer becomes an artist. After pushing through the most difficult rehearsals on the most emotionally taxing days, we blossom.

Just as my most challenging days in the studio brought forth some of my most exciting artistic breakthroughs, struggling with Lyme disease has allowed me to become a more complete person. I am more durable and capable than I ever thought possible. The strength truly does come after the challenge.

Getting an IV (Taylor Jarman, courtesy Jarman)

5. "We Stand on the Shoulders of Giants" - Bernard of Chartres

No professional dancer makes it on her own. Each one is the product of her teacher's commitment, her dance friends' loyalty, her studio owner's investment, her choreographers' passion, her parents' financial support and encouragement, and her own self love. Dancers become dancers only when many people work to make it so.

Treating Lyme disease is no different. Any progress I make in my healing comes thanks to the support of my parents, doctors, friends, faith, fellow chronic illness warriors, siblings, extended family, dance students, college professors, employers, and more. I am grateful to dance for teaching me this before my illness. I get to get out of bed every morning because I stand on the shoulders of giants.


I'm so thankful for this art form. Dance really is one of the greatest life coaches. Remember the lessons it's taught you the next time your world is turned upside down. It'll help pull you through.

To hear about another dancer's struggle with Lyme disease, and to get more information about Lyme, click here.

Dancer to Dancer
(From left) Darriel Johnakin, Diego Pasillas, and Emma Sutherland (all photos by Erin Baiano)

Congratulations to Dance Spirit's 2019 Cover Model Search finalists: Darriel Johnakin, Diego Pasillas, and Emma Sutherland! One of them will win a spot on Dance Spirit's Fall 2019 cover. Learn more about the dancers on their profile pages, and then vote for your favorite below. You can vote once a day now through July 15.

We also want you to get social! We'll be factoring social media likes and shares into our final tallies. Be sure to show your favorite finalist some love on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, sharing their profile pages and using the hashtag #DanceSpiritCMS.

Cover Model Search
Photo by Erin Baiano

Imagine attending American Ballet Theatre's prestigious NYC summer intensive, training among classical ballet legends. Imagine taking the stage at New York City Dance Alliance Nationals, competing against some of the country's best contemporary dancers. Now, imagine doing both—at the same time.

Welcome to Madison Brown's world. This summer, she's in her third year as a National Training Scholar with ABT, while also competing for NYCDA's Teen Outstanding Dancer title. (She's already won Outstanding Dancer in the Mini and Junior categories.) The logistics are complicated—ABT's five-week intensive overlaps with the weeklong NYCDA Nationals, which translates to a lot of cabs back and forth across Manhattan—but Maddie is committed to making the most of each opportunity. "I love contemporary and ballet equally," she says. "While I'm able to do both, I want to do as much as I can."

Maddie has an expressive face, endless extensions, and a quiet command of the stage. She dances with remarkable maturity—a trait noted by none other than Jennifer Lopez, one of the judges on NBC's "World of Dance," on which Maddie competed in Season 2. Although Maddie didn't take home the show's top prize, she was proud to be the youngest remaining soloist when she was eliminated, and saw the whole experience as an opportunity to grow. After all, she's just getting started. Oh, that's right—did we mention Maddie's only 14?

Keep Reading Show less
Cover Story
Corbin Bleu in rehearsal for "Kiss Me, Kate" (Jenny Anderson, courtesy Roundabout Theatre Company)

If you're a hardcore Broadway baby, today is the worst Sunday of the year. Why, you ask? The Tony Awards were last Sunday, so basically there's nothing to look forward to in life anymore—no James Corden being James Corden, no teary acceptance speeches from newly minted stars, no thrilling excerpts from the hottest new shows. Oh yeah, and there are 50 more Sundays to go before our humdrum lives are once again blessed with the next annual iteration of Broadway's biggest night.

Keep Reading Show less
Musical Theater

Video

mailbox

Get Dance Spirit in your inbox

Giveaways