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The Troublesome Tooth

How I Got Hooked on Ballroom Dancing

By Kerri Seemann

So you want to know how I got started with dancing? Well, I’ll tell you. Do you want the short answer or the long answer?

Short? Okay! “Facebook.”

Too short? Well, here’s a longer answer.

I was checking the Facebook newsfeed when I saw a friend's post asking if anyone was interested in free dance lessons. I commented with, “It sounds too good to be true.” She replied that her friend Rachel was a professional ballroom dancer that wanted to transition into teaching. Since I’d always wanted to learn how to dance, I volunteered to be one of her guinea pigs.

Those first few lessons were a fun introduction to dance and made me want to learn much, much more. I wasn’t prepared to sign up for private lessons, but Rachel said that she was planning on teaching group classes that fall. When the time came, I convinced my husband to come with me. (Okay, I really didn’t give him much of a choice.)

I really enjoyed the group classes, but after about five months, Rachel decided to only teach private lessons. As a bit of a send-off, she wanted to get her students out of the classroom and expose us to the local dance community. The night that worked best for everyone turned out to be the night of the USA Dance monthly variety dance at Cinema Ballroom in March 2013. It was incredibly intimidating dancing among so many experienced dancers. I could barely stay on my feet when I attempted a waltz, and yet I had fun … enough fun that I went to the monthly dances month after month.

Rachel also suggested that we try going to the free group lessons through Project Dance. I resisted at first (I didn’t want to drive out to Chanhassen) but started attending the month that Rachel was an instructor teaching tango. I’ve been hooked on those group classes ever since.

So there’s another answer for you. But if you want to know the full story, I’d have to go back a few months. Then you’ll understand my state of mind when I first saw that Facebook post and why I was suddenly receptive to this new adventure.

It all began with a tooth—one troublesome tooth. My dentist found a cavity in one of my wisdom teeth and found that another had erupted. He decided that they should both be pulled. The oral surgeon suggested that he also take out a third (and final) wisdom tooth, since it would most likely cause trouble eventually. I had never been sedated before and was a bit nervous, but everyone kept reassuring me that everything would be fine. As it turned out, it was that third tooth that was trouble … and much sooner than expected.

There were three factors contributing to its troublesome nature. First, the roots of most teeth grow parallel with the jaw, but this one grew in perpendicularly. Second, the roots grew together at the bottom. Finally, one of the nerves running through my jaw happened to be trapped between the roots, in that small hole. When that third wisdom tooth was pulled out, the nerve was ripped apart. The oral surgeon said that he could see the frayed ends of the nerve where my tooth had been.

That’s what I learned from the oral surgeon the week after the damage was done. Originally, all I knew was what my husband told me after I was settled in at home—that there were complications … a nerve was severed … even though the anesthetic would wear off, part of my face would remain numb … the damage might be permanent, but a chance of surgery offered some hope. My initial reaction was relief that I at least woke up from the anesthesia. I was also determined to have the surgery. I clung to that ray of hope, but fearing that nerve repair was something that needed to be done ASAP, I was very anxious over the following weeks and months while I was forced to wait.

There aren’t many oral surgeons in the country that perform the kind of surgery I needed, because it just isn’t that common of a problem. Conveniently, one of them happens to be at the Univerisity of Minnesota. He said that he performs about five or six of these operations each year. The chance of success (any improvement in sensation) is about 60%. He said he was optimistic about my chances because I was still young and healthy, and he pointed out that since there was no sensation to begin with, there wasn’t much to lose.

The doctor said the surgery was a “sagittal split osteotomy with coaptation and reanastimosis of the left alveolar nerve.” In other words, my lower jaw would be surgically broken; the frayed nerve endings trimmed, then wrapped in a special tube that would help contain the nerve fibers while they grew back towards each other; and then my jaw would be held together with three tiny screws. It would take about six weeks for the bone to heal … longer for the nerve.

I was going for it. I wanted that surgery. It terrified me, but there was nothing that I wanted more at the time. And yet signing waivers acknowledging the risks of surgery, including the possibility of death, made me really think about my life, including things that I’d been too scared, too busy, or just too lazy to try. Also, I worried about how the surgery and recovery would affect my young daughter. Because of my weight restrictions after the surgery, I wouldn’t be able to pick her up for a few weeks; the comfortable routine that we had was about to change drastically. So I spent the last couple weeks before the surgery trying to pack in as many fun outings with my daughter as possible—concerts, trolley rides, trips to the sculpture garden and model train museum, etc.

Then, the night before my surgery, I saw the Facebook post. And I thought, “Well, assuming I wake up from the anesthesia again, it looks like I’m in for an adventure.”

As it turned out, nerves grow even more slowly than I expected. I had the surgery at the end of June 2012, and I didn’t feel the slightest hint of sensation until just before Thanksgiving. Dancing gave me something fun to focus on during that long wait. And both the nerve recovery and my dancing have continued to improve gradually ever since.