Student Spotlight: Dancing Despite MS

Student Spotlight: Dancing Despite MS

Photo by Lani AssafIt’s easy to take our ability to move our bodies for granted. Our next “Student in the Spotlight,” Danielle Harrsch, hasn’t always been able to walk much less dance. Danielle has multiple sclerosis, an often disabling disease of the central nervous system that disrupts the flow of information between the brain and body. In 2010, she was laying in a hospital bed, not even able to flex her foot. But these days, she’s dancing en pointe in Philly Dance Fitness classes every week. We caught up with Danielle to learn more about her inspiring journey back to dance.

PDF: Let’s start with a little more about you. Where are you from and what do you like to do? 

I grew up in a suburb of Philadelphia, where I spent my whole childhood dancing. I went to The Rock School of Dance Education in Philadelphia before going on to Pointe Park University with a scholarship for ballet. When I’m not dancing, I love going to see shows in the theater and going to the art museum. I also work in marketing.

It sounds like dance has always been a major part of your life. How does having MS impact that? 

Well, I danced for 17 years, but in 2009 I was diagnosed with MS, and in 2010, I was rendered completely paralyzed on my left side. I couldn’t walk and had to use a cane. That’s why for me, going back to dancing was so scary, because I didn’t know how my body would react. Sometimes in the middle of an exercise my muscles do get spastic. But I decided to pick it up again because I felt like I needed dance; it was in my blood.

What drew you to Philly Dance Fitness?

I started attending classes in July 2015. I was inspired by a friend, who was a childhood dancer as well, when she posted a Facebook video of going back to dance class. I was very apprehensive at first because of my multiple sclerosis, but I went to my first adult Beginner Ballet class and absolutely loved how welcoming everyone was. It felt like a big family and I really appreciated how the class didn’t feel like a competition. What keeps me coming back is my love of dance, but also the community at Philly Dance Fitness.

Has dancing helped with your MS?

Prior to beginning classes, I had dealt with fatigue on a daily basis – and really I still do. But in October, I went to Paris and my fiancé and I walked up all the steps of the Eiffel Tower, it’s 800 steps! I was OK, not totally drained and exhausted like I thought I would have been. Without dance, I don’t think I would have been able to do that. PDF classes have been so helpful with my balance, stamina and strength. It gives me hope for the future because MS is such an unpredictable disease. I could be unable to walk tomorrow. But the classes have given me a sense of having my body and my life back.

What is your favorite class?

The ballet classes are my focus, although I have also taken jazz and contemporary. I actually brought one of my friends to take a ballet class for the first time in her life ever and the next week she came back for a second class! I recommend ballet because it’s a great way to get active and be artistic at the same time.

Which class do you find the most challenging?

I take all the different ballet classes four times a week. Advanced Beginner Ballet on Mondays is the most challenging because the steps are more complicated and involved. I also find the more basic class, Beginner Ballet I, challenging because the steps are slower. When you have simpler steps, you can actually focus on individual body parts and technique.

Do you have any new fitness or dance goals that you’ve been working on so far in 2016?

Yes – I want to get my extensions higher, I have been working on my pirouettes, and I want to improve my overall stamina. I also dream of being able to perform the Princess Aurora Pas de Seul variation from Act I in Sleeping Beauty en pointe again.

You mentioned that you’re engaged, does your fiancé dance, too?

I went to the Valentine’s Day weekend “Ballroom Romance” workshops with him because we had been planning to do a Viennese Waltz for the first dance at our wedding. The workshops were super fun and Kira was a fantastic teacher. After the tango workshop, my fiancé actually suggested to me that we do a tango dance at the wedding as well!

Philly Dance Fitness student Danielle Harrsch poses with a Degas sculpture.

Philly Dance Fitness student Danielle Harrsch poses with a Degas sculpture.

Interview by multimedia marketing intern Lani Assaf

For more information about MS, visit the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, which also hosts annual fundraising walks around the country to support research and awareness campaigns. One of the largest local events takes place each spring at The Philadelphia Art Museum. This year’s walk will be held early in the morning on Saturday, April 30, (Danielle is participating and invites your support!) A related Zumbathon fundraiser takes place the following day. 

We’ll continue to highlight more students in the coming months, so if you’d like to nominate someone — or even yourself! — send a note to

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