SHREWSBURY, Mass. — Since she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, Anna Connors (pictured) keeps her limbs limber and her spirits strong by belly dancing.
A former high school gymnast and dedicated marathoner, she'd always been healthy and active.
"The MS came out of nowhere in 2006. I tried chemotherapy to suppress it in 2007 but felt worse," said Connors in the Shrewsbury house she shares with her husband, Dan, and their daughter, Victoria.
In 2008 while shopping, she met a fit, attractive woman named Gypsy Phillips who invited her to the belly dancing classes she gave at the Shrewsbury Senior Center. Despite initial skepticism, she gave it a try.
"I fell in love with belly dancing," said Connors, 56. "I totally love it with all my heart."
Twice a week she slips off her shoes and into something comfortable - like flowing silk - and joins "Gypsy" to study the dance that began in the ancient Middle East, scandalized the Victorians and made Shakira's hips into international stars.
Connors, who also swims at the Westborough YMCA, believes dance keeps her strong, flexible and independent.
"Belly dance is my way of keeping MS at bay," she said. "It's like saying, 'Screw you, MS."'
This Friday, Connors will step into the limelight in a solo belly dance as part of "Festivals of the World: An Evening of Middle Eastern Fusion Dance" at Assabet Valley High School, 215 Fitchburg St., Marlborough. She'll also perform with the Velvet Moon Gypsies, the group she regularly trains with in Shrewsbury.
Performed by several troupes of Phillips' Gypsy Moon Dance Company, the two-hour show starts at 7:30 p.m. with doors opening at 7.
Tickets are $7. For inquiries, call 508-393-9371.
Phillips signed up for her first belly dancing class 37 years ago at Cox Street Elementary School in Hudson "to get back in shape and get a night out" after the birth of her third child.
"It was more the 'night out' at the time. I'd always liked to dance - ballroom and swing. There weren't many (belly dancing) teachers back then. Before the course was over, I was teaching belly dancing," she said.
Phillips said Connors doesn't let the pain or physical limitations of MS, which can drastically affect muscle control, prevent her from trying complex moves that require coordinating muscles in her legs, torso, abdomen and arms.
"Anna's really amazing. I'm so proud of her. She's a tiger who doesn't let anything stop her," said Phillips. "If the MS makes a problem, Anna finds a way to work around it. She's an inspiration to people facing obstacles to get out there and do something."
Phillips has been teaching belly dancing since 1973, establishing her Gypsy Moon Dance Company, giving classes in school gymnasiums, senior centers and local YMCAs. "That's why they call me 'Gypsy'," said Phillips, who says she never reveals her first name.
Over the years she's attended workshops by belly dancing legends like Suhaila Salimpour, Maya Abi Saad and male modern dancer Bert Balladine.
Phillips said there's more to belly dancing than flashing your tummy and snapping finger cymbals to Turkish-sounding music.
"You need a good sense of rhythm, good hips, fluid movements and a good attitude," she said. "And it doesn't hurt to have a little theatrical flair."
While its origins remain obscure, Phillips said what's popularly called belly dancing in the West began as a traditional Middle Eastern dance called 'raqs sharqi'." It was likely introduced to Europe by returning veterans from Napoleon's armies who erroneously called it "danse du ventre," or "dance of the stomach," though it uses every part of the body.
In her classes, Phillips also teaches hybrid styles called tribal fusion and flamenco fusion. While some teachers cater to younger tastes by teaching goth fusion, she does not.
While her prognosis remains uncertain, Connors explores other physical and recreational outlets, like horseback riding, to improve her health and strength. Earlier this year she began riding with Kathy Casey, a Munson resident who was diagnosed with MS in 2004.
Since then Casey has fulfilled a lifelong dream by adopting two "off-the- track" thoroughbred racehorses for therapeutic horseback riding with Connors and a handful of others with MS.
"The horse's gaits mimic how we walk. Just riding helps build core strength," said Casey. "Just since we've begun, Anna has been sitting up straighter in the saddle. She's has gained strength and balance."
For Marilyn Ruggieri of West Boylston, Connors has become the linchpin of an informal support group that makes it easier to deal with the uncertainties of multiple sclerosis.
"I don't want my MS to control me or fill my head," said Ruggieri who learned of her condition three years ago. "I'd rather be with people like Anna who are full of life. Whenever we're together, we always have a laugh."
When she's not dancing, Connors drives retired emergency room physician Dr. Maggie Harling to the YMCA where they swim laps to improve their flexibility and muscle tone.
A native of Dorsett, England, Harling, who learned she had MS in 1988, said Connors encourages her and others coping with adversity "to make the best of every situation."
"Anna doesn't let anything get her down. I think that's why I like her," said Harling. "We only have one life to live. Why roll over and play dead? We should enjoy the life we have."
Wednesday, December 1, 2010
MetroWest Daily News in Mass.:
Posted by BA Haller at 5:36 PM