At the peak of our Dancesport career, we were probably one of the top Grade C Standard couples in Singapore, with a very promising Grade A Standard potential. However, I was plagued with health problems related to Scoliosis. Scoliosis is a condition where the spine is laterally curved and twisted. (See X ray of my spine on the left). Since the ribs are connected to the spine, the rib cage also becomes distorted, which affects the organs inside rib cage (heart, lungs).
This gives rise to many other secondary problems like backache, breathlessness, digestive and mobility problems etc. A very extreme case of Scoliosis will result in one looking like a hunchback.
Since the age of 15, I was diagnosed with Scoliosis and was under treatment with a rigid Milwaukee body brace. It was a very ugly and uncomfortable structure from hip to neck and had to be worn for 23 hours a day till I was 18. The other option was surgery that would fuse my spine and leave me inflexible, thus ending any possibility of vigorous activity, like Dancesport.
Surgery was not an option I was prepared to undergo, which had many potential, irreversible adverse side effects. That was one of the darkest points in my life; with being the brunt of jokes by fellow schoolmates were the norm.
Despite that, I continued with my activities in the Boy Scouts and eventually obtained the President’s Scout Award (equivalent to a Queen’s Scout or Eagle Scout Award). By the time I was 18, I was pronounced stable and discharged from having to wear the brace and thus ended the 3 years of torment and torture. However, I was classified as medically unfit and hence was excused from Basic Military Training, which is compulsory for all eligible males in Singapore
To celebrate my newfound freedom, I started learning dancing when I was 18 years old. Due to my curved spine, co-ordination was a problem, so much so that my first instructor told me that I was his worst student in all his 20 years of dance teaching. Fortunately, through much perseverance and patience on my teacher’s part, I got to an acceptable social dancing level.
Many years later, I met a wonderful lady, Pele; who later became my wife. She was a social dancer, but quickly became my Standard Dancesport partner within a span of 1 year. Despite my condition, we speedily rose to become a formidable force in Singapore Standard Dancesport.
However, many of the other dancing couples did not understand my medical problem and we were scolded many times for blocking their paths, crashing into them or we ended up tripping and falling on the dance floor. Also, many of our teachers, including those from UK which we had short stints with, thought we were either too stupid, un-teachable or rebellious to follow their instructions properly. It was near impossible to get the promenade position and contra body movement to what the teachers wanted. Getting my left side towards the lady was also extremely challenging.
Due to Scoliosis, my spine is not only curved, but also rotated. This basically means that the upper and lower body was off center, thus making positions like promenade really confusing for the lady, with the upper body pointing one direction, while the lower body pointed another different direction. That was the real reason why we always crossed-paths with each other and ended sprawling on the ground during practices before the Scoliosis treatment.
Dancing tango was a duel as our knees were always digging into each other; sprained ankles and scraped knees were common occurrences. Poor Pele, she took a number of the tumbles and had to constantly carry blue and black bruises around. To circumvent that problem, we built up on other aspects of our dancing to hide our shortcomings, which worked well to a certain extent.
Unfortunately, even though dancing helped maintain my posture, which reduced the symptoms for the past 20 years, as age caught up, my Scoliosis started to become worse. Backaches became more severe and frequent, and short practices left me with pain and breathless. At that time, I found a new treatment in the USA that could partially rectify my Scoliosis without surgery. Not wanting to face surgery, I eventually chose to undergo this treatment for my Scoliosis.
Called the Copes method, treatment was extremely intensive, involving wearing a body brace for 18 hours a day, therapy, exercises, chiropractor sessions, supplements etc. Having to re-enact the previous torturous 3 year’s body brace treatment during my teenage years and most likely having to endure taunting by immature people was my worst nightmare relived, but fortunately adults were much kinder than teenagers and my colleagues and sub-ordinates were very supportive.
Many of our dancing friends were initially shocked but were very encouraging too. Although we did not require it, some of our Dancesport friends even wanted to start a ‘Save Robin’ fund for me, which touched us very much.
It was really painful and frustrating during the first few months of the Copes treatment. Our whole life revolved round my treatment and many times tempers flared. Needless to say, our Dancesport career came to a screeching halt. My wife and I were extremely depressed, having to stop at the peak our Dancesport career.
It was one of the darkest periods of our lives together, having to be treated as handicapped (being certified by the Singapore Handicap Association as one), from our days as a very promising Dancesport couple. We saw our peers continued to improve, while we degenerated. Our very popular RpMerleon Dancesport website (http://www.rpmerleon.com) was neglected as we became despondent due to despair and having to spend so much time on my treatment.
My wife did consider looking for another partner at that time for the duration of my treatment. While she did not discuss this with me at that moment, she eventually decided against that and put her whole heart to support me in whichever manner possible. Looking back, I realized what pain and sacrifice my wife went through to support me by sacrificing her youth and talent. Not to mention dancing was her only form of keep fit exercise and her main hobbies; and I really appreciate and love her for that.
Two years went by and my condition became slightly better with treatment, though no way near being normal. Feeling a bit less depressed, we decided to start some dancing practice just for fun. Initially, it was really frustrating; as we could not remember many of the steps taught, not to mention any bodily contacts while dancing. Many practices later, we gradually got better, and in fact found that many of the steps (like promenade) that I had difficulty doing before, had become easier. We attributed that to the improved posture and de-rotation of my spine with the past 2 years of treatment.
As we were in our fifth year of marriage and just became eligible for the Senior Dancesport categories, we decided to take part in the 14th Lion City International Dancesport Championships, just for fun and as an anniversary celebration. Our teachers welcomed us back with open arms and were a great source of morale support. We started lessons in Latin, and did improve a little bit. Encouraged, we started to renew updating our RpMerleon Dancesport website.
Although we did not enter the final rounds in our first Senior competition, we came short of the Senior Standard Final (7th place), beating many of our previous local opponents, including some Japanese, in spite of being out of action for 2 years with just 4 months of lessons (actually just one lesson of Standard, with the rest in Latin) and practices. Ironically, despite our difficulties in Standard dances and having spent almost all lessons in Latin, our teachers and friends commented that our potential in Standard is much higher than in Latin!
I’m really happy with this result and I thank my parents, wife, teachers and all our friends for all the support given during this difficult period. Even though we understand that my recent 2 years of Copes treatment might only last for the next decade and that I most probably will have to wear a retainer brace everyday for the rest of my life, my wife and I look forward to furthering our Dancesport career once again.
We resolved to continue to dance and not let my handicap impede our dancing for as long as we can. To fellow dancers with the same condition; especially those I don't get to know personally, don’t despair; there is life after Scoliosis!