One Step at a Time
Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis two years ago, the owner of a Kentlands ballet studio won't let the disease rule her life
At her dance studio behind Panera Bread in Kentlands on an April afternoon, “Miss Hope” is leading a ballet class for about a dozen 3-year-olds. When she speaks to the little girls lined up in front of her, it’s in an overly expressive tone, operatic one minute, a stage whisper the next. She gets down on her knees to meet them at eye level. She wears a black leotard and a pink tutu, similar to what many of her students have on. The connection is purposeful.
MacDonald claps her hands to get their attention. “First position,” she says.
All eyes on her, they attempt to stand with their heels together and toes pointing outward. It’s a jumble of flailing arms and legs seeking balance. MacDonald then pirouettes fluidly, and they awkwardly mimic her. A few fall over.
“Amazing!” she exclaims with delight.
MacDonald was mesmerized by the idea of dancing as far back as she can remember. Her mother says that at age 3, with a broken foot wrapped in a cast—she had jumped off the stairs pretending she was a ballerina—Hope was singing and dancing in the driveway. She wore out the cast in less than a week.
“As a kid, she constantly had music in her head and she was always dancing,” Joyce MacDonald says.
MacDonald began ballet lessons as a toddler and studied jazz and hip-hop as she got older. She took musical theater at the Shenandoah Conservatory at Shenandoah University in Winchester, Virginia. But after teaching a dance class for 3-year-olds during college, she saw a more appealing life for herself.
“Do I want to be in a cockroach-infested apartment in New York with $150,000 in student loans,” she recalls thinking, “or do I want to still be able to pursue the arts and help to empower and inspire little girls?”
MacDonald taught at several studios in Delaware, Virginia and Maryland, but was repelled by their emphasis on competition and attention to body image. She was 24 years old when she opened Bella Ballet.
MacDonald did not keep her diagnosis a secret, telling her students, who range in age from 2 to 12, and their parents not to be alarmed. She told them she would miss some classes from time to time, but that she would continue teaching.
“These little girls,” she says of her students. “They are seeing a role model who is strong. Life is not always sunshine, honeysuckle and gumdrops. They’re seeing me as a living, breathing…physical example of overcoming adversity.”
MacDonald hasn’t had an active lesion on her brain since November 2017, nor has she ever had any on her spine that could restrict her mobility. Still, while MS is not always the medical sentence it once was, it has taken its toll.
MacDonald has the scars to show for it, like the ones on her neck, the result of having to undergo three plasma exchanges since her diagnosis. Known as plasmapheresis, the procedure removes the toxins in her blood that trigger MS flare-ups. Each time has involved at least a week in the hospital.
And there was the time she had to undergo a spinal tap to collect fluid from her spine and it leaked. Her surgeon had to perform a blood patch, in which he used MacDonald’s own blood to repair the hole in the membrane around the spinal cord. The headaches afterward “were beyond awful,” she says.
She has had more IVs inserted than she can count. She’s spiked fevers and contracted hives. She’s received chemotherapy, which is used in MS treatment to kill the white blood cells that mount the attack on the myelin coating over her nerves.