Mary Louise King Speaks at FestiVall on Firsts, Favorites and the Future

This April, I recently had the privilege of speaking at FestiVall as a guest on "Three Things" - a live monthly speaker series featuring three unique professionals discussing their first, favorite, and future works.

As a seasoned performer, I often speak at live events, but this one was truly special because I got to share a little more about my first, my favorite and my future.

My "first" is my many struggles and how they made me stronger.

My struggles led me to my "favorite" - dancing!

And my "future" is helping others discover the same!

In this talk, I reveal my plan of how younger and older generations can collaborate to discover light, lovely living by finding the joy in movement and in socialization. I hope you'll enjoy the video and a transcript is provided for your convenience as well.

FestiVall, Three Things, Mary Louise King

Three Things - My First, My Favorite, and My Future

Transcript of Live Speech - April 20, 2022

Put your left arm above your head. Now brush it with your right hand, down over your armpits. We just cleaned out your lymph nodes. When was the last time you put your hand above your head? So when you see me out dancing and I’m raising my arm above my head or extending it to the side, you can tell the person sitting beside you: she’s just cleaning out her armpits.

You may find it surprising, but I was born handicapped in my feet and legs, and through a long series of struggles, I learned to be graceful.

My FIRST will be about my struggles and how they transformed my life. My struggles led me to my FAVORITE, which is dancing. My FUTURE is about how I have a plan to help myself as well as other baby boomers to stay out of nursing homes and to live a light, lovely life to the very end, finding joy in movement.

Moving our bodies in playful ways strengthens them so we don’t lose it in the end. Someone did an experiment on trees in Arizona, building a perfect place for them to grow – the right amount of sunlight, water and nutrients in the soil. But when the trees grew to a certain age, they all fell over! There was no wind that caused movement, and therefore the trees didn’t put down solid roots.

When a tree is being blown by the wind, it may feel that it’s struggling, but it’s that struggling combined with grace that produces a tree that’s majestic and strong, able to provide shade and resources for others to enjoy. We want our lives to be an example to the younger generation that sees us as graceful and poised, strong and ready for all the opportunities life offers us.

Anyone who knows me well knows that I wear pearls almost every day of my life. A pearl is made by the oyster when it is introduced to an irritation. It transforms that seemingly bad experience into a thing of beauty. All my FIRSTs were similar to what the oyster might feel when it has the bad experience of discomfort. The FIRST part of my life was peppered with struggle. To strengthen my weak legs, my mom took me to an orthopedic doctor. He gave me special shoes and therapy. Mom also enrolled me into ballet and tap classes, but I was the clumsiest in the class.

In second grade, I received a blow to my face which broke my front tooth. They capped it silver. No one had braces or silver in their mouth back then. I stopped smiling and I felt like a wallflower. Other kids made fun of me.

I had the silver tooth until tenth grade when it was in the process of being capped white. A girl charged into me playing girls’ basketball in Pittsburgh and knocked the tooth we were preserving all those years out onto the floor. It was packed in ice and a dentist did an emergency root canal and put it back into my mouth. My smile is one of those smiles that was made possible by kind dentists all along the way in my life.

The first part of my life, I lived in Pennsylvania. When I was 17, I went to West Virginia University, where I started to see my value. I was a runner-up for Ms. Mountaineer in 1975. I was out on the football field with two other contestants during halftime, dressed as a true Mountaineer. My parents had first row seats on the 50-yard line in the concrete bowl we called our beloved stadium. It just happened to be at the game when WVU played arch-rival Pitt. The Mountaineers won even though they played against the famous Tony Dorsett. We tore down the goalposts!

After college, instead of going back to Pennsylvania, I got married and moved to Charleston, so I’ve been a West Virginian for 50 years now. I worked as an interior designer at Boll Furniture and then raised two sons.

When I was 49, I had another setback that took me back to my childhood days. I herniated a disc in my back and lost the use of my left leg. I had to pull on it manually to move myself forward. To recover, I joined the older adults’ fitness classes. They were all much older than me and called me, “the child.” Through those classes, my legs got stronger. This is when I FIRST realized that I needed to exercise to keep my body strong. I then certified to teach yoga and Pilates, and I became licensed to teach SilverSneakers.

Since I had gotten so strong, I started to think of all the ways I could give to others as a way of paying-it-forward. I remembered a near-death experience I had when my second son was born. After everyone had left the hospital, my uterus got soft, and I started to bleed to death. A nurse came in and noticed I didn’t have any pulse. She called a bunch of other hospital workers, and they ran in to pound on my abdomen. It seemed as though I watched all this from the corner where the wall and ceiling meet. The next thing I remember was feeling freezing cold because of the blood I was receiving.

I have a rare blood type, O negative. I am a universal donor, meaning that I can give blood to anyone, but it’s difficult when it comes to finding blood for me as well as all the other 0 negative blood-type people. I started to give blood as a way of paying something valuable I have forward.

While donating my blood on March 3, 2011, I had an accident at the American Red Cross. I had a vasovagal episode. My body panicked, and all my blood rushed to my core, leaving my brain. Normally, when this happens, a person faints, and once they fall to the ground, blood can get to their brain. You’ve probably seen this in movies when a lady swoons from seeing something tragic and falls to the ground. The problem on March 3 was I was sitting up in a donor’s chair, and the blood could not get to my brain. I was without brain blood for 2 1/2 minutes. In three minutes, I would have had brain damage. Four minutes would have meant death.

When I regained consciousness, a nurse from next door had arrived and she was calling 911. They had raised my feet. The paramedics got there before my husband, and I said I didn’t want to go to the hospital until I talked with my husband. He was in charge of our money, and I didn’t want to spend any and get myself in trouble. When he arrived, he was furious and yelled at me in front of all the people around me who were trying to be so kind.

I did go to the hospital, and my husband followed in his truck, but while there, he was distracted due to his mother’s sickness. He was afraid she was dying at home. He was her medical power of attorney.

This trauma was overwhelming to me. My brain hurt, and over the next months, it seemed to me that my husband could not see my loveliness. If you are a husband, I urge you to continue to court your wife and don’t ignore her. When my husband felt squeezed or pressured, what came out of him was not safe for me. I felt broken-hearted.

Like a caterpillar, I wrapped myself up in a cocoon, and what I recognized as good earlier in my life changed form. This period was like a dark night of my soul, and I felt like I lost everything dear to my heart.

For the next three years, I was in a time of transition. I outgrew my old way of life. It was a period of restoration g my spirit. Some very gentle people came into my life. They held the space for me and helped me to sustain my life. I finally felt a sense of gain from the loss and my life was being made beautiful again.

In 2014, I started to emerge from this uncertain time by giving myself a gift of kindness. I started to say to myself, “Let’s be kind to MaryLouise.” I felt the kindest thing I could do for my husband and me would be to file for divorce, acknowledging our loss, but I also visualized a different kind of life with him. I felt we needed space between us so that more gentleness and kindness could be expressed, more like what we had when we first met, before marriage and children. My husband was shocked and upset with me. He asked me to try again with our marriage. We decided to take ballroom dance lessons since it seemed like a couple thing. The problem was that he attended very few dance lessons. In the meantime, I found my FAVORITE! I love to dance! My legs were strong enough to dance! As a child, I always wanted to be graceful and I always loved that feeling I felt when I saw two people dancing together.

This is what I learned when I first took dance lessons and what I teach now: There is no stopping and starting again in dancing. If the couple keeps their feet going according to the rhythm, they can make mistakes and keep on going. These concepts as applied to life is what I would call freedom and dancing became a picture of what I wanted my new life to be.

Some more life secrets about dancing: Dancing couples cover for each other. If one makes a mistake the other makes the best of it, not letting anyone else know. And if a mistake is made, the leader takes responsibility for giving a bad lead. The idea behind couple dance is connection, not perfection. It’s all very courteous. I wanted this kind of life for the rest of my days. In couple dance, the leader’s responsibility is to keep the follower safe, comfortable and entertained. I certainly needed to dance more.

After 37 years of marriage and three years of engagement, in 2015, I filed for divorce again. If you’ve ever gone through divorce, you know what a struggle it is. This decision flung me into more loneliness, but like all the struggles I had been through before in my life, I found grace. The unrecognizable mush that was in the cocoon continued to emerge as a beautiful butterfly. I started a new part of my life. My FAVORITE activity gave me the confidence I needed to feel lovely and light. I found such joy in moving my body to various rhythms.

At first, my ballroom dance teachers filled the gap of the loneliness of divorce for me. If I had not filed for divorce, I would have never tried dancing even though I always wanted to dance as a child. As I said earlier, I was put into ballet and tap classes as a child to strengthen my legs, but I was the clumsiest in the class. However, as I kept taking ballroom dance lessons, I found out those wobbly legs were strong. Eventually, one of my teachers invited me to go to a group dance lesson. I was afraid because I didn’t know anyone, but my teacher assured me I’d be safe. At my very first group lesson, I met Jim Wallace, who became my regular partner.

As time has progressed, I’ve met many like-minded people in the dance community. Each step I took helped to heal me and give me a sense of belonging. I fit into my dance “family.”

There are seven dance clubs in our area and lots of place