Dancing through the pain

Annabelle is a champion Irish dancer who has toured with Michael Flatley’s Lord of the Dance

By David Hennessy

An Irish dancer who has danced with Michael Flatley’s Lord of the Dance will perform for the last time at the upcoming World Championships in Dublin. Annabelle Nunnery from the Marie Connell School of Irish Dancing in Wolverhampton has been diagnosed with an incurable illness that causes her severe pain in her feet.

24-year-old Annabelle, from Rainhill near Liverpool, is determined to finish her dancing career on a high at April’s World Championships.

Annabelle told The Irish World Dublin will be tiring, emotional and stressful for her: “It’s all about doing what I love and trying to do it for as long as I can.

“As well as other things like tiredness, I find emotions really draining and they make my tremor worse so I think I’m going to find it hard to keep my adrenaline and emotions in check to be able to dance but the idea is to hopefully go out with as good a performance at the worlds as I can.

“If I don’t or things go wrong for whatever reason, I think I’ve had a fairly successful career. I met my boyfriend, made loads of friends. I can’t complain.

“This is like a new normal now. My new normal is obviously a lot different to what it was, a lot different to most other active 24-year-olds, I’m sure. It’s been a lot of making peace with this.”

Annabelle pictured with her mother and one of her Irish dancing trophies.

Annabelle has been dancing since she was six years old and first started experiencing symptoms in 2017. Her feet began to itch at night. It was so intense that it kept her awake and she had to soak her socks in icy water to try to ease the burning. She even tried to sleep with frozen peas on her feet. Completely unable to sleep, Annabelle was distraught and exhausted. She went to her GP five times to try to get an answer, but the doctors could not give her answers.

“It was really frustrating. You know when you go to the GP you’re really conscious that they think that you’re exaggerating. I was like, ‘No, I’m not exaggerating’. I ended up in some tears trying to get a GP that would listen to me.

“It took a year to get the diagnosis and then it took probably six months after that that was when it mentally hit, ‘That this is it’. It wasn’t going to change.

“That was quite hard to deal with so it’s been another six or eight months of making peace with what my new normal is and trying not to get as frustrated as I used to.”

Dancing takes a toll on the body but Annabelle always knew the pain was something more serious than just aches and pains from dancing: “That was what a lot of people used to say to me when it first started happening. They would be like, ‘It’s all your dancing but I knew it wasn’t. Dancing didn’t necessarily make it any worse. It made dancing hard but it didn’t make it worse. It always seemed more medical than dancing pain.”

Annabelle with her boyfriend Callum. Annabelle is grateful for all dancing has given her including her boyfriend and friends.

Annabelle’s condition is called idiopathic small fibre peripheral neuropathy. When the world championships in Dublin come around, she hopes it does not prevent her from giving her best performance: “It’s just a case of hoping I don’t wake up on a bad day. There’s some days I say to my teacher, ‘My legs aren’t working’. She’s like, ‘Yeah, I know’. I just hope I don’t wake up having one of those days. I’m trying to do everything I can to limit that, getting as much rest as I can and making sure I’m eating right, ice baths or whatever it is I can do to help.

“I have to rest a lot more now. I’m not a person who enjoys rest or takes it very easily. I’m not a very good sick person or injured person. I like to dance, I love exercise.

“It’s been a learning curve mentally that way as well having to make a switch taking breaks and knowing that in the end will make me dance better even though I feel like I’m doing less, I should be getting worse.

“They said initially it does improve in some people but if it was going to, we would have seen it after about nine months. It’s been two years so it’s got to a point where I don’t think it’s getting any worse. Initially it seemed like every day I had a new symptom or every day it was getting worse or stronger. It took a while as well to get me on the right medication. That was a lot of trial and error and then obviously the tablets I’m on now are quite strong and quite dangerous so I have to make sure I have the right dose.”

Annabelle wants to bow out after the world championships in Easter as moving onto the next year of the dancing calendar is sure to be too much for her. However, she can see herself remaining involved in some way such as teaching:

“I think I would find it quite hard to stay away from Irish dancing completely. I love working with the kids. I really enjoy teaching them and seeing them grasp something. I get enjoyment from that, always have done.”

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