Townsville’s Michelle Ryan was living her dream as a dancer in Europe when tragedy struck. ISIS STUCKENSCHMIDT reports
IT was just like any other working day.
Michelle Ryan, 28 at the time, a petite ballerina at the peak of her career, woke up with the sparrows to head to the dance studio where she was working in Europe.
Only hours later she would feel a terrible pain in her leg that would end her career as a dancer.
‘‘I started dancing at six and went through classical school and was quite serious,’’ Michelle recalls.
‘‘I remember waking up at six o’clock in the morning to go to ballet class and going to school all day and then going back for a class in the afternoon — it was always a big part of my life.’’
Born and bred in Townsville, Michelle always had a dream to become the perfect ballerina.
She chased that goal for years in Australia before moving to another part of the world and living her dream in Europe. Not only was Michelle now at the top of her game, she had also settled in with her rock, and now husband, dancenorth artistic director Gavin Webber.
‘‘I was actually over in Germany at the time, Gavin and I were in a rehearsal room together and decided to try out a routine,’’ Michelle, now artistic manager of dancenorth, explained.
‘‘My legs were a little bit shaky and being a dancer I realised straight away that something was wrong so I went to see someone and they sent me to someone and they sent me to someone and I ended up in a hospital with people speaking German all around me and didn’t know what was happening.’’
That’s when Michelle was told she had multiple sclerosis, better known as MS.
MS is the most common disease of the central nervous system among young Australians — particularly women.
The average age of those diagnosed is just 30.
All of a sudden Michelle couldn’t do the things she thought were simple and natural — like dancing.
‘‘I went through a stage of denial where I didn’t go out, didn’t want people to know and didn’t want to get involved in any projects . . . I locked my self away from the world,’’ Michelle said.
‘‘The unfortunate truth is that I have no idea how or why I got it. There’s a lot of theories out there about what could trigger the disease but there’s no one in my family who has it. They say there’s usually a higher risk for people who are from colder climates but I’m from Townsville so that couldn’t be me. I’ve always had a very good diet and I’ve never smoked in my life and have never drunk excessively. I have a glass of wine now and then but that’s it.
‘‘I was still wondering when I found out and sort of thought, ‘why, why me?’’’
Michelle said the news of her condition not only shook her, but the rest of her close-knit dancing friends and her family.
‘‘Having to tell my family that I had this was devastating — having to reassure them that I was going to be OK, while trying to reassure myself wasn’t easy,’’ she said.
Michelle said she had no idea about MS before being diagnosed.
‘‘The worst thing is, I went on the Internet and just read you know, the worst case scenarios, and you have to be aware of that but it was really full-on for a 20 something year-old girl to think that this could happen to you,’’ Michelle said.
‘‘I was still fine — physically to look at me you wouldn’t have been able to tell anything was wrong.’’
Soon after being told of the condition, both Michelle and Gavin decided to return to Australia.
In 2001Michelle enrolled at a naturopathy college to try and fight the illness with natural medicines.
‘‘I got really, really, good marks because I’m a bit of a perfectionist but my health at the same time was going down so then I stopped doing the course because I was going down quite rapidly,’’ she said.
It was about midway through 2002 that she then lost complete feeling in her legs and had to use a walking stick — by the end of that year, she was in a wheelchair.
‘‘It was very hard, especially when I was in a wheelchair, because not only had my career been taken away from me immediately, but also having been in active performance for so long I had formed a sense of embarrassment and shame because my body wasn’t doing what it was supposed to be doing and that was really, really hard,’’ she said.
Within a few months Michelle’s health was improving again and she and Gavin decided to tie the knot.
Seven years after that devastating day in Europe, Michelle, now 35, is back in her hometown and walking with the help of a walking stick.
Michelle said she had not expected to be return to the town she had grown up in, and before her diagnosis the couple had planned to settle in Berlin.
‘‘It’s sort of an eye opener and really makes you re-evaluate what’s important to you. I definitely wish I didn’t have it (MS) — I was having a fun time working overseas but it’s since coming back that you really realise how important family is.
‘‘At first I was a little bit reserved about coming back because I didn’t know what it was going to be like again but the people are so kind here.
‘‘In a lot of the bigger cities people stare at you because I’m young and I have a walking stick whereas the people here are very open — they ask me directly what’s happened to me and they look me straight in the eye and I really like that.’’
Michelle said that while her dream as an elite dancer would probably never be realised again, she was happy for one thing — and that was to be walking again.
‘‘I still do wish I didn’t have MS but having been in a wheelchair I’m grateful that all I need at the moment is a walking stick,’’ she said.
‘‘It’s funny because I don’t necessarily feel that I’m getting stronger until people who haven’t seen me for a few months say ‘oh wow you’re doing this and you’re doing that’ it makes me then realise that things are improving.’’
So much so, Michelle said she now even needed several walking sticks around her workplace.
‘‘I keep losing my walking sticks because I walk around without them so I now have two walking sticks because people (work colleagues) are sick of looking around for my stick for me,’’ she chuckled.
As for her future, Michelle said she would continue working hard at dancenorth with Gavin.
‘‘There’s always a possibility that I’ll have another attack because they really don’t know the path of the disease but the good thing for me is that I have actually been well and improving since being in a wheelchair which is a really good sign,’’ she said.
‘‘I realise that I do have a lot to offer and I’ve experienced a lot in the dance world and that’s kind of the nice thing about coming back to Townsville — that I can continue to work with Gavin and we have great plans for the future of the company.’’
Michelle Ryan at dancenorth
Michelle Ryan Right: Michelle in her prime as a dancer when she was working with Meryl Tankard Australian Dance Theatre
Gavin Webber and Michelle Ryan on their wedding day