She’s a personal trainer. She teaches yoga and Pilates and leads an exercise class for seniors. And she dances whenever and wherever she can.
She radiates health, verve and confidence. A caring nature reflects inner serenity. She doesn’t look even close to the 62 years she will celebrate in September.
She wasn’t always like this.
Mary Louise King remembers a withdrawn, awkward little girl mocked for her silver tooth and the birth defect that gave her an odd, clumsy gait.
She describes herself as the poetic ugly duckling who blossomed into a graceful swan, a transformation she embraces as the defining theme of her life.
The journey wasn’t easy. Her mother’s encouragement meant everything. Yoga, Pilates and dancing strengthened her legs and released her from the agonizing repercussions of a herniated disc. Later, a diagnosis of psychosomatic hip pain led to counseling and introspection and a healing way of thinking.
Now the vibrant survivor shares her hard-got knowledge as she helps others stay mentally and physically fit.
Dancing fuels her soul.
”I grew up in Irwin, Pennsylvania. I was born handicapped with my toes and knees turned in. That made me very clumsy. I was clumsy about everything. I spilled my milk every single mealtime.
“I started to not speak up for fear that I would do something wrong. I became very withdrawn.
“In second grade, I received a blow to my face and my tooth cracked. Back then, no one had silver in their teeth, and I had a big silver tooth. I didn’t want to smile.
“People made fun of me because I was different. That’s why I felt like the ugly duckling.
“I had a wonderful mother. She taught me to think something nice about Mary Louise. She would often say that pretty is as pretty does. She tried to tell me that beauty came from the inside of me and it would reflect out. I believed her. I felt that inside me, I could accept grace.
“I was like the ugly duckling who grew into a beautiful swan, beauty inside being reflected out. I found if you had grace in your heart that you could express it out and it would outshine the silver tooth.
“That’s what I do in my classes. I try to help people come out of themselves and look at themselves and smile at themselves. We need to be kinder to ourselves and show self-compassion.
“When I got into high school, I did gymnastics and diving and basketball to strengthen my legs. But those activities led to more teeth injuries. So my mother saved her money and decided to have my teeth capped in 10th grade. Now I’m not afraid to smile.
“I learned not to be so afraid of people’s opinions. I got through humiliation by laughing at myself. I learned about inward grace.
“I went to WVU to be a physical therapist to help other handicapped children, but I changed my major to interior design to help my mother in her store. My dad worked in the store also. He was a painter. The store was called Interiors by Woleslagle. That was my maiden name. Mom is 85 and still has the store.
“At WVU, I was into everything. I was very kind. I treated people the way I wanted to be treated. I was on the football field in 1975 when we played against Pitt and Tony Dorsett and we won.
“I must have changed into being a swan by then because I was a runner-up for Ms. Mountaineer. My son, 34 years later, was runner-up for Mr. Mountaineer.
“I married and came down here to live and worked at Boll Furniture until my first son was born. Then I did freelance interior design as pay it forward. I would help a client with my talent and they were to do something nice for someone else with their talent. They didn’t pay me money.
“I was married for 36 years and engaged for three months. He was from Dunbar. I recently got a divorce.
“I got into ballroom dancing to try to reconnect with my husband. It didn’t work. He wouldn’t go to the lessons. I took private lessons for five months. When I danced, I forgot all about my problems. My legs got stronger and I became lighter on my feet.
“In 2007, I had started to teach yoga, Pilates and Silver Sneakers, and I learned that my legs were actually quite strong.
“I had taken care of Gen. Charles R. Fox for eight years. He was adjutant general for two governors. He lived right up the road and my children cut his grass. His wife had died, and I just kind of adopted him and took him everywhere with me.
“He would fall. Trying to take care of him, I herniated a disc in my back and had extreme pain in my left leg. I had to drag my leg and lift it to move it forward. The calf muscle atrophied. My foot was numb.
“Over three years, I got better. I didn’t have surgery. Yoga and Pilates seemed to help. I joined the exercise classes at the YMCA. They called me the child. They were older adult classes called Silver Sneakers and they helped me. I could walk normally.
“I got certified as a fitness instructor. I teach 16 classes a week. I also became a personal trainer. I want to teach other people how to be kind to themselves and how to encourage themselves and be pain free.
“I was dancing three to four nights a week before Bollywood, a fundraiser put on by the Indian community. Jim Wallace was my dance partner. We won first place in a swing dance contest at Summerfest in South Charleston.
“In December, they asked Jim and me to dance for Bollywood. Then I had another setback. I had gotten the divorce, and it was difficult time and there was a lot of worry and financial concerns. Apparently I had repressed a lot of emotions, anxiety, fear and anger that should have been allowed to come out and be noticed for what they are. I must have been dreaming about them.
“I woke up one morning and I had a bad pain in my hip. It would go away as I walked, but it kept getting worse. My doctor put me on pain pills for a day. Instead of dancing and teaching, I rested. That was the worst thing I could have done.
“The next morning, the pain was so great that I passed out and my eyes went up in my head and my face turned red and I had convulsions and my heart rate went down.
“A friend was with me and called an ambulance. They did brain wave tests and heart tests and X-rays and found I had nothing physically wrong.
“How could something like this show up for no reason? Could it be emotional pain that I repressed? I had this book by Dr. John Sarno about healing back pain and the mind-body connection.
“Could it be psychosomatic? We think only crazy people have this. I’m not crazy, but I have had a rather difficult life. So I went to my pastor, Rev. Monty Brown at St. Mark’s United Methodist. I went to the Kanawha Pastoral Center for counseling.
“Like many women, I put my needs and emotions last. I covered up my emotions to be strong for my children.
“I found you can have this chatterbox in your mind that talks excessively about your fears and that I needed to let my feelings come out and be expressed, to have them come down in my lap where I could observe them. It would give my mind some kind of rest.
“I needed to be loving toward these upsetting thoughts like my mother was to me when I had temper tantrums.
“Acknowledging the pain in the morning as psychological would take the pain away. I did this by writing morning pages. As soon as I woke up, I started scribbling on a piece of paper any thought that came down to allow my subconscious to talk.
“When you repress an emotion, you don’t know what it is. It’s hidden from you. My subconscious thinks my emotional pain is too much to bear, so it distracts me with physical pain by depleting muscles of oxygen.
“The cure is to just say, ‘Hello, psychological pain. I see you are there today. C’mon. We will go on and do what we are going to do today.’ That’s how I got pain free.
“Once I was able to label this and deal with it from a psychological point of view, I got better. So many people are on pain meds. What if it’s psychological pain being pressed down and not wanting to come out?
“Maybe that is something I should be talking about. I am not afraid to talk about what I’ve been through, my struggles, to help somebody else. I do talk about it in my classes. My exercise niche is that I help my students let go and have fun. My class helps them overcome the stress and pain that life sometimes bring.
“By Bollywood Night on April 30, I was perfectly healthy again, body, mind and spirit. I had a wonderful time, dancing as if no one was watching. I felt great joy in being graceful like the swan I always wanted to be.
“There are lots of dance clubs here in the area – ballroom, Latin, Argentine tango shag, and I belong to all of them.
“When I dance, it’s like a form of heaven on earth. There’s nothing out there except dancing. It’s floating across the floor and using brain cells and it’s another world.
“I was a mentor to many young women. I would teach women’s groups or have young girls come here where I taught them how to be nice to themselves, how we should show ourselves compassion and accept ourselves the way we are. We all have a special place in this world. We all have something to do. We’re part of a community.”
Reach Sandy Wells at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-342-5027.