Dancer putting stroke in past Heidi Menocal, 32, to teach dance class six months later

'Determined' to do it all

Doctors do not know what caused illness that numbed right side

August 26, 1996|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

Skipping never felt so good for Heidi Menocal.

The springy step isn't as carefree and bouncy as it used to be, but performing the simple act is more than enough for the 32-year-old Ballet Theatre of Annapolis dancer, who suffered a stroke in March that left her wheelchair-bound.

Although fearful that it marked the end of a long professional career, Menocal fought with determination and grit not only to get back on her feet, but also to dance.

Next month, the South County native will teach her first advanced ballet class to students at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts.

During her 33-day stay in the hospital, she said, she was "too sick and frightened to realize what it meant for me and my career. It didn't hit me until later. But I was determined to do everything I could not to give up, for my 6-year-old son and husband as well as for myself."

Doctors still do not know what caused the stroke, which left Menocal with no sensation in the right side of her body and no control over movement. If she tried sitting up, she fell to the side. If she tried placing her right foot in front of her, it would kick in a different direction.

"Frustrating" times for a woman so used to controlling her movements in graceful leaps and elegant twirls.

"It was truly devastating," said Nancy Knowles, a friend and former student. "It was extremely hard to see her that way. But it has also been such a rewarding experience for me to see her make a full recovery and be so highly motivated and upbeat at the same time."

Friends and family say it was the dancer's humor and determination that helped her recover so quickly. Menocal credits her physical therapist, Rick Peret. Using big inflatable balls and rocking platforms, Menocal and Peret tried to balance her weight equally to accomplish the once-simple task of standing. Walking on smooth surfaces, uneven sidewalks and gravel were all obstacles to overcome.

Even recently, Menocal fought with humor the battle to regain control of her movements.

"You're a little off," Peret warned her during a Thursday session as he helped her balance on a tiny rocking platform.

"Oh, I've always been a little off," a wobbly Menocal said, chuckling.

"Yeah, but before, you couldn't blame that on the stroke," Peret said.

"Three months ago, she couldn't even stand up," said Peret, who knew Menocal before the stroke. "It was a little unsettling to see such a caliber of athlete go through that. That was the hardest part. But she has always done everything we've ever asked and more. That's what contributed to her fast recovery."

Dance ballet? Out of the question, Menocal thought. And yet, to many people's surprise, she moved quickly from wheelchair to walker to wheeled walkers and, finally, to her own two feet.

"She has not let anything stop her," Knowles said. "She is an inspiration to anyone who has ever had to face adversity, and we know she'll be up there dancing again before too long."

Last month, Menocal began taking adult ballet, a class she taught before her stroke. Moves that came so instinctively before are difficult. Still, with each class, it gets a little easier, she said.

Even now, she walks almost as if "half-drunk," she says. Her vision is impaired, and her voice is low and raspy. And she probably will go through one more month of physical therapy to regain her confidence in walking.

Menocal hopes to have a part in the Annapolis company's spring performance.

She has danced since the age of 5 and received a scholarship to the Joffrey Ballet. She also performed with the Prince George's Ballet Company in Maryland, the American Academy of Ballet in Buffalo, N.Y., and the New York Dance Theatre before joining the Annapolis company in 1983.

For now, she is happy just going back to teaching. Her first class will include Peret, who, after months of teaching her to walk, talk and balance, will spend one class with her to learn how to pirouette, plie and grand jete.

"I've got two left feet," Peret said, laughing. "It should be quite entertaining, but it'll be worth it because this was one of her goals.

"She still has to start dancing again, but this is quite an accomplishment."

Pub Date: 8/26/96

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