"I like to say that a stroke saved my life," says ballroom dancer Christopher Spalding. It was April 2020, a time when most people's realities were turned upside by the pandemic.
He was at home, because his Fort Wayne Ballroom Company—the studio he runs with his wife, Kelly Bartlett-Spalding—had been forced to temporarily close. Despite the shutdown, the couple had continued dancing, and had even recently choreographed and sent a recording of a routine to retirement homes to cheer up isolated residents.
They were making the best of a difficult situation, but something wasn't right. Spalding had been having headaches for a couple of months, "but because of the virus, no neurologist could see me." When he had a stroke, his wife had to drop him off at the ER, unable to accompany him inside.
Doctors soon learned how dire Spalding's situation was: A CAT scan and MRI revealed a brain tumor taking up more than a quarter of his brain cavity. In May, he had surgery at Indiana University Health to remove more than 90 percent of the tumor, and it was determined he had grade 3 brain cancer. It was aggressive and growing quickly.
When he came out of surgery, he says, "I was so dizzy, and so weak, and so disoriented, that I swore right then and there that I was never going to walk again," says Spalding, a world champion and three-time North American champion ballroom dancer. In the hours after his operation, a physical therapist encouraged him to move from his bed to a chair and try to sit up for 45 minutes. "It's the most uncomfortable I've ever been, not muscular-wise, but just because my head was so off," he recalls.
Christopher Spalding after surgery, which removed a tumor a quarter the size of his brain cavity.
It didn't take long for his dancer-ly determination to kick in. The next day, Spalding was using a walker and says, "I could literally feel my body reconnecting." Two days post-op, he was using a cane. Halfway around the ward, he stopped and taught the physical therapist how to cha-cha and tango. "She was dumbfounded, but my body had started to remember."
As days went by, the therapists couldn't believe his progress. "They were all like, 'How are you doing this right now? You're a week after major brain surgery, and you're doing this?' And I said, 'Well, I'm a dancer. I keep telling you: I'm superhuman. You need to get used to that.' "
But Spalding wasn't out of the woods yet. He went to Northwestern Medicine Proton Center in Chicagoland for six weeks of daily, intensive chemotherapy and radiation before he dove into physical, occupational and speech therapies in mid-September. Transitioning from dance studio director to patient was admittedly frustrating. "I am the guy who takes care of everybody else. And so it was very hard for me to feel like an invalid, but my friends and neighbors pulled together in a beautiful way to help my wife and I."
Despite the strides Spalding was making in rehab, returning to dance was a months-long journey. "The biggest hurdle I had to overcome was that it had created a lot of problems in my vestibular balance system," he says. Doing exercises with eyes closed was a challenge. "The room would start to rock back and forth and it would get more and more violent until I couldn't stand," he says.
But he credits the therapy staff at Indiana's Parkview Regional Medical Center for finding creative ways to help him regain his balance, strength and coordination. "They recognized that I'm not your average bear. I'm closer to a professional athlete than a normal person," says Spalding. Instead of putting him through a standard therapy program, they understood that his baseline and the mechanics that he needed to regain for dancing were higher. In October, he was cleared to return to the studio.
Though Spalding, 38, says he'll never technically be cancer-free, "the goal is to try to keep killing those cells to the point where eventually they just can't grow back." In December, he and his wife danced in a virtual fundraiser benefitting a community food bank and artist relief, and they're eagerly anticipating the day they can perform again in person.
They've set their sights on coming out of retirement and professionally competing a show dance. "There are people who have loved my wife and I, have been fans of our dancing for a long time and who have supported me through all this. There's something that I want to give back to them." And, he continues, "I feel like I have more to say artistically now."
If going pro again wasn't enough, Spalding has also added another massive goal to his list: He's currently training for an Ironman Triathlon, a grueling race of swimming, biking and running. "I'm going to show everybody that dancers are the toughest people in the world."
Recently, Spalding tested positive for COVID-19. But he's not letting the virus stop him either: He'll attack it with the same dancer-ly determination he's used to fight brain cancer.