Townsville’s Michelle Ryan was liv­ing her dream as a dancer in Europe when tragedy struck. ISIS STUCK­EN­SCHMIDT re­ports

Townsville Bulletin - - Weekend Extra -

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

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