Body Movin’

body movin’ body movin’ A-1 sound and the sound so soothin’

Three days after brain surgery — three bizarre hallucinatory days of spinning tilting rooms, predatory plaid disengaging from its shirt to waffle in mid-air, hospital beds with trap doors and bottomless chutes — my husband Tom brought me a few things from home so I’d feel like my old self. One of them was an iPod shuffle loaded with my favourite songs – the 21st century version of a mixed tape. So I know that man loves me.

I put in the ear-buds and hit play. The opening notes of the White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army played — one of my all time faves – I smiled, I felt normal. Jack smashed out the chords of the solo and a trap door behind me opened and I was swallowed-up by the music. Electrical currents shot up and down my spine. Hot needles sizzled. Flashes of light dazzled my closed eyes. I was Jack White’s bass string, or inside the string, or it was inside of me. I never wanted it to end. Track after track, the rockers rocked on – Stones, Clapton, Aerosmith, my hands and feet tingled, more needles sizzled. Then Alicia Keys and her piano washed away the tempest. I floated on the music, small calming tingles on my face and lips, like a musical facial. Then Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald crooned about the river flowing and cotton growin’ high, and I drifted down that meandering Mississippi on a raft, the currents ebbing, flowing and swirling along with Ella’s voice and Louis’ trumpet.

At first I didn’t tell anyone; it was mine and it was special and I never wanted it go away. I woke up every morning and went to sleep every night on the magic carpet ride of my music. And while it played I was out of the hospital, out of my malfunctioning body. I was floating, twisting, sizzling through the waves of melody. A week later, when I left the hospital, my magical music ride was over. My brain was healing.

The medical term for the phenomenon is ‘synesthesia’: when one sense is interpreted by the brain as another sense. As Oliver Sacks points out in ‘Musicophillia’, synesthesia “literally means a fusion of the senses.” Like when music is experienced as colours, lightning bolts, or floating down a river on a raft.

I was home, ten days after brain surgery; I wasn’t all better, but I was getting better…And missing my trips down Ol’ Man River.

My friend Jennie visited and gave me a CD of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. She handed it over like Obi Wan giving Luke his light sabre with the cryptic words, “Bach is more that music.”

Jennie is a cellist with degrees in music and nursing, and I should’ve known that this wasn’t just a pleasant bit of music to fill quiet hours. She had a plan when she gave me that CD.

One morning I woke up shivering and weak. My spine trembled as if detached from my torso. I sat at the dining table and dug into my yogurt and my spoon ricocheted off the sides of the bowl. On its way to my mouth it wobbled and swerved through the air like a giant magnet was pulling it left, right, down, up. The steaming cup of coffee looked downright treacherous. Then I remembered Jennie’s CD.

I put the Goldberg Variations into the stereo and hit ‘play’ then stood, clutching my walker, my spine undulating and my teeth chattering unable to take another step. By the seventh track – eight minutes and 36 seconds later (I counted, timed and wrote down everything) – I had stopped shivering, my spine was still, and my headache gone.

I started to listen to music to steady myself to stand and eat, then later, to balance and walk. I wasn’t aware of music therapy or how it worked. But Jennie’s cryptic message that Bach is ‘more than music’ felt true. Maybe Bach more than others, but all music is more that just music; or it can be if you let it. Here, in the most simplistic explanation is why:

The layout and organization, of the brain’s functional regions is key. The sensory-motor region of the outer ‘walnut shell’ looking thing, the cortex, shares neural circuits with the neighbouring auditory centre where music is processed. Body movements are planned and processed alongside the processing of musical rhythm; it’s a harmony of input (music) and output (movement).

The beat and rhythm of the music helps activate the motor region of the brain and initiate movement; especially movement of the legs. Music provides cues to for timing and helps drive orderly, synchronized movement, or a kinetic melody, as Oliver Sacks and other neurologists call it. The effect outlasts the music itself and can result in neural re-wiring and a permanent change in the brain’s functioning, the brain’s healing. And the patient’s mobility. Patients with Alzheimer’s , Parkinson’s, stroke and acquired brain injuries have been treated with Rhythmic Auditory Stimulation – an exciting frontier in brain re-hab and health.

I still turn to Bach when I’m having a tough ‘brain day’; when my balance isn’t quite what I need it to be, or when I know I’m going to challenge my balance centre at a tap class or on the ski hill: I pop in those ear buds and let the music do its magic; even thought there’s no flying carpet or great meandering river.

Now let me get some action from the back section…we need body rocking not perfection…let your spine unwind, just take a risk…body movin’                   (the beastie boys)



Feet First

Not that kind of feet first — I mean let’s talk about feet, first. I’m coming at this from my experience: from the first time I tried to stand up after brain surgery until now my feet have been both the limiting and the liberating factor of my balance and mobility…

I failed, bombed my first balance test in the hospital; my feet just wouldn’t sit flat on the padded mats meant to break the inevitable falls of the neuro-patients that used the space. Nine years later, at last week’s tap class, my feet twisted and rolled while I tried to learn how to do a variation of the ubiquitous shuffle-step; a stomp shuffle step. After a couple of respectable tries, my right foot rolled onto its side producing a slow motion, arm flapping pirouette. Everyone pretended not to notice, or smiled like yeah, I know …except they don’t know, because I didn’t tell them that brain cancer wiped out my balance centre. I just wanted to tap to boppy, happy music. An unpredictable wild step now and then is my price of entry and I pay it gladly… then I go home and practice practice practice to get my feet on board.

In the very beginning, I couldn’t walk without a walker. And it wasn’t proper walking — more like shuffle walking. When I tried to stand or walk without the walker, my feet curled and turned on their sides. Think of a toddler careening around the house, loaded diaper wagging, knees high, feet alternately rolled onto their outer edges with toes tightly curled or up on tippy-toe. Now superimpose that image (minus diaper svp) onto a 38-year-old woman re-learning to walk . Without the soles of my feet in full contact with the ground, I couldn’t control my steps. It was ambulatory chaos.

The physiotherapist suggested exercises: walk backwards and forwards on your toes, heels and sides of your feet. Exercises, I’m sure, that have been scientifically tested for success. But when your brain  doesn’t understand where the soles of your feet are, and you don’t have access to a gym with parallel bars, the exercise is rendered useless. Without my walker I could stand for a maximum of twenty seconds. I couldn’t walk, so I couldn’t do the exercises, and if I couldn’t do the exercises I’d never be able to walk…

…insert obscenity here. I really can’t remember which one I used, but I bet it had and F in it, like fffffffeeeeet!

Because there was a time when I was a pretty good athlete. Quick and nimble with an epic sense of balance. Then I remembered Miss Anna and her magic string.

Miss Anna was my stern, suffer-no-fools, bun-headed ballet mistress. Well into her fifties, whippet lean in her leotard and be-ribboned dance shoes. As we all lined up at the barre for pliés, Miss Anna would remind us of our magic strings attached to the tops of our heads. Pull your string up, long neck, back straight, shoulders down, bottoms tucked…

I’ve always believed those pliés in Miss Anna’s basement studio were the  foundation of all my future balance and athleticism. And that’s where I started when I  had to re-build a new balance centre. Maybe they can help yours too.

  1. First position: Stand with your feet together (either facing or sideways to your support/barre tall enough so you don’t tip over). With your weight slightly on your heels open up your feet from the toes as far as you can (the balletic ideal is 3 and 9, but 10 and 2 or even 11 and 1:00 is fine).*
  2. Turn-out looks like it’s all about the feet, but it comes from the hips the ball and socket joint of your thigh bone and your pelvic girdle.If you can’t feel your glutes, push your heels forward until you feel the head of your femur in your hip joint (you will know it when you feel it). Or, when you see it: what ‘Ballet Bob’ my first adult instructor called ‘the wrinkles of turnout’. As in, your yoga pants will pucker around the outside of your beautifully clenched bum-cheeks. (Bonus: this can result in a rock hard nut of a ballet butt) Proper from-the-hips turnout can be intense up around the hip and glute region, so if it hurts, leave it and do what works for you body — it’s already been through some stuff, listen to it and trust it.
  3. Plié: When/if you’re ready, move onto the plié. The demi plié: Your heels never leave the ground. Before you move check your magic ballet posture string, pull up from the top your head; lift your chin ever so slightly and take a regal inhalation. I am the sugarplum fairy…or the nutcracker prince (whichever suits you)… Slowly bend your knees keeping your heels on the floor and your spine vertical – or Miss Anna will swat your tush. At the point when you feel your heels about to lift, straighten you knees and return standing. This is a slow deliberate movement.Take your time. Dancers take eight beats to do the entire movement; four counts to the bottom of the plié and four to return.littlegirlplié

*If turnout isn’t possible just stand en parallel, as Ballet Bob called it (BTW he introduced himself as Ballet Bob I’m not mocking the man who helped me re-build my balance centre): face your ‘barre’ feet together in parallel; as Miss Anna would say, pull your string up, stretch your neck, shoulders down, back straight…you regal ballerina you.Try bending your knees into a demi plié.  And whenever you’re ready, try turning-out into first.

If my instructions aren’t clear or if you’re ready to do more (there is always more, grande pliés with heels off the ground, arms added, the other four positions, the finishing relevé) try this YouTube channel with a series of adult beginner ballet videos:

Click on ‘playlists’ and find ‘adult beginners class’ & click again.

I’ll figure out how to do a proper link soon, promise. Stay tuned!






Welcome to Brain Soup

This is my collection of ‘nonsense’ that I compiled as I rehabilitated my brain after Medulloblastoma (aka brain cancer) nearly wiped out my balance and co-ordination center. I learned a lot about how to learn to walk, write, eat, enunciate, get out of bed…and fall down seven times, get up eight.

Not that I want you to fall down. I just want us all to know that we can fall and get up again, and again. I’ll share all my falls and my recoveries. From learning the basics to hitting the ice, the slopes and a dance studio or two.