“Belly Dance Saved My Life”

A while ago I posted a blog about a photo I saw of a belly dancer in a beautiful blue costume dancing with a veil. She was also in a wheelchair. Debra Ford commented to me on the photo alluding to her own experience in a wheelchair so I chased her up for more information.

It turns out that in May 2006 just a few months after starting her Mystical Rose Belly Dance school in the Western suburbs of Melbourne, she was in a horrific head-on collision with another car, both doing 100km per hour. Deb’s car flipped three and a half times skidding on its roof down the road. She ended up with a broken neck, which they had to piece together with a wedge out of her hip, two screws and a plate.

After the accident

After the accident

She also fractured her back in two places, had three pelvic fractures, a broken wrist and a totally smashed ankle, which got pinned under the accelerator and the brake pedals. Glass from the windscreen also scratched her eyes so badly she was blind for the first week and a half and only regained clear vision after three months. The shock to her brain has also caused some permanent brain injury.

This is completely beyond the understanding of most of us. In fact, it took the fire brigade an hour to cut her out of the wreck.  When they got her to hospital, they did test after test, trying to find the internal injuries, finally, after 17 hours, her husband mentioned that she was a belly dancer, who taught 10 classes a week, so they finally released her to intensive care. They said she shouldn’t even have survived, let alone not get any internal injuries – it was all put down to two things; her petite size and the strength and muscle tone she had in her abdominal muscles which held her together and protected her organs during the accident.

She was back teaching in a limited capacity by October 2006, in several casts, and crutches or a wheelchair. How did she do this? I wanted to find out about the woman behind Mystical Rose Belly Dance.

Debra went to her first belly dance class in 2001 in Baccus Marsh. This triggered a metamorphosis as she went from being very shy to becoming confident in herself and her abilities. Within 18 months she was an assistant to the teacher and helping arrange shows, and was asked to teach at a Neighbourhood House at Woodend. Wanting to further her studies, in 2003, she enrolled with Underbelly in Fitzroy and by 2005 had passed the teaching training there. In January of 2006, she opened Mystical Rose Belly Dance, teaching mainly Modern & Classical Egyptian along with Saiidi, Alexandrian and Khaleegi with 60 students, this was just before the accident in May.

Deb before her accident

Deb before her accident

The strength and purpose she gained through her dance and teaching kept her strong throughout her recovery period. In fact she was told she would not be able to dance again, so she decided to do the opposite!

She certainly had challenges involved with this, besides the pain and inconvenience of being in casts and immobile, she was also dealing with headaches and memory problems with the brain injury. While in rehab, she would spend hours watching belly dance dvd’s and Youtube videos increasing her knowledge and repertoire through her mind. As she was not allowed to put any weight on her ankle she would envision what moves she wanted to music and then get into a wheelchair to choreograph.

Her physical recovery was greatly aided by her years of belly dance training. As we all know, belly dance is about being able to control small muscle groups, in other words, total muscle control. It was this control and knowledge of muscle groups that helped her get the best out of her physiotherapy and speeded up her recovery.

Belly dance also aided her mentally while recovering. The nurses in the hospital were particularly supportive, asking her to teach them moves from her wheelchair. Not only did the nurses have fun, but Deb felt useful and “normal” as the rest of her day was all about her injuries. She says “Belly dancing is not only my life but also my rehab, so much more fun than the gym and I ever so slowly get more out of it.”

She still struggles on a daily basis to manage the pain and limitation in her back and ankle, and can’t sit or stand for long periods, and has had to adjust her whole way of living her life. She also had to retrain the way she stands and dances to make it appear as if she is moving “normally” as students will copy your movements exactly, whether you are doing them right or wrong, she says. She also has yearly CRN (Cranial Radiofrequency Neurotomy) which boils the nerves in her neck to reduce pain and migraines. Despite this she went to Egypt in 2009 to learn from the belly dance masters such as Mahmoud Reda, Farida Fahmy, Aida Nour, Khaled Mahmoud, Mahamoud Kazafy and Dina when she came to Australia.

Belly dance took Deb out of a wheel chair and all the way to Egypt!

Belly dance took Deb out of a wheel chair and all the way to Egypt!

Sometimes you are unaware of how you would cope when these challenges happen in life, when you really discover what you are truly capable of. I hope if anyone ever ends up in such a position, remember Debra Ford and take strength.

Some advice from the inspirational Debra herself: “My disability is permanent, so I’ve had to find the confidence and strength to remodel techniques to continue to pursue my love of belly dance. As long as you are enjoying what you are doing and the people around you provide you with the space and the means to participate give it a go.”