Couple's dance performance captures a lifetime of love

They almost didn’t meet at a mixer dance more than 57 years ago.

Sue Stein, at the time still Sue Barrows, was sitting in the corner at a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) dance, waiting to let her friends know that they were about to lose their driver because she wanted to go back to her dormitory. There was no one interesting and she was bored.

Then across the floor walked Dick Stein. He asked her to dance and she fell in love.

“I told everyone that night that I had met the man I was going to marry and that was the truth. He had these amazing qualities,” recalls Sue, now 77 years old and married to Dick for 56 years. 

Those qualities that won Sue’s heart, including Dick's motivation to succeed, are still evident decades later. They helped drive the retired University of Alberta researcher, renowned for his neuroscience and physiology work, to rise from his wheelchair to dance his wife around the floor in front of an appreciative crowd at the Edmonton General Continuing Care Centre. Dick, who has Parkinson’s disease, and Sue were supported by a “dream team” who helped them prepare for their first public performance at a ballroom dancing event.

“It was wonderful and it was also very hard,” says Dick, following the performance which garnered loud applause from the packed room.

They led off with one of Dick’s favourite songs, My Way by Frank Sinatra. Dick and Sue then waltzed to their song, Moon River and ended with a jive to Blue Suede Shoes because they wanted to “lift people’s spirits,” says Sue.

The couple spent months preparing for the event.

“It’s important on a personal note because of the fact it enabled us to do something we used to do and enjoy,” says Dick, 78. 

“We also thought it would give people an idea of what can be done, even against a disease like Parkinson’s disease,” says Dick.

That message of hope was a big motivator for her parents, says Ellie Stein, a psychiatrist.

“It wasn’t for him that he wanted to do it. It was to give others hope,” says Ellie. “That was what his research was about. He worked with amputees and spinal cord injured patients. That’s his passion. He’s all about helping people. That’s what he devoted himself to for 50 years.”

For Dick, giving up wasn’t an option.

“There aren’t any good alternatives,” he says. “You either adapt to it or you’re miserable. “

Friends, as well as Dick’s former colleagues and graduates joined staff, residents and visitors at the Edmonton General to see the couple perform. Several of those, including neuroscience and physical therapy researchers and physical therapists, belonged to the “dream team” that had been working with Dick and Sue to prepare for the event.

“Without our dream team, it could never have happened,” says Sue. “It was a magical moment.”

Pollyanna Kwong, a Recreation Therapist who supported Dick and Sue, says Edmonton General staff and residents were inspired by the couple’s drive to perform.

“Many residents were filled with joy seeing their friends fulfill their dream and we were very entertained. The energy of the room was filled with positivity,” says Pollyanna. “It’s never too late. You’re never too old or too weak for your goals.”

While the performance marks an end to their dancing training, Dick, who has a PhD in physiology, knows from his previous research work, that it has a positive effect on Parkinson’s symptoms. 

“It turns out that dancing is a very positive influence on the brain functions,” Dick says “Some of the brain disorders are helped by dancing.”

Every Saturday morning for about 45 years, the couple took ballroom dancing lessons at Arthur Murray Dance Studio, which would be followed by dinner and more dancing that night. It was a gift Dick gave Sue because he knew she loved the activity and it was something they could share together.

“It’s a very wonderful thing to be able to do with the person you love,” he says.

Several years ago, a dance instructor noticed Dick’s left leg was becoming “lazy,” a symptom of Parkinson’s, recalls the couple.

Dick was eventually diagnosed with the progressive disease in 2013. Then, in August 2018, he was admitted to hospital in Edmonton.

“He was bedridden and we thought it was over,” recalls Sue. “But because of a dream that he wanted to accomplish, it motivated him to the extent, with the help of the dream team, to accomplish it, to get out of bed, to start walking again and unbelievably to dance again.”

In the Edmonton General since October, the couple practiced a few times weekly. Leading up to the performance, Dick spent two days in bed. And the performance commanded so much of his energy that he needed to spend more than two days in bed after the three-song performance.

“It took a lot of people to make it happen and we’re grateful,” says Ellie.

Parkinson’s progression means Dick is rarely able to leave his wheelchair and when he does, he requires assistance, he passes out unexpectedly, his thinking patterns have been affected and his speaking volume has dropped to a near whisper, explains Sue.

The effort Dick put in to dance is not a surprise, says Ming Chan, a Professor with the Department of Neuroscience at the University of Alberta.

“For many of us, we would say it’s hard and not bother. This is Dick. When he puts his mind to it, he gets things done,” says Ming, who refers to Dick as a mentor. “He’s very accomplished and very humble.”

The couple knows it was their first and only public performance.

“It was a one-time thing,” says Sue, who spends several hours visiting Dick daily. “Everything changes in life. It was a precious gift. He’s the love of my life.”

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