Deliberate steps


“The hardest part about this disease is to let go, to take things as they come, and to deal with what you’re given. With MS, you literally never know until you put your feet on the ground that day if you’re going to be able to walk.” – Deidre Kellogg

Like countless parents of rambunctious 6-year-olds, Deidre Kellogg’s mother enrolled her in a class at the Minnesota Dance Theater “basically to get rid of me,” she joked. The young dancer caught the eye of the theater’s director and founder, Loyce Houlton. Impressed with Kellogg’s natural talent, Houlton took the youngster under her wing, offering her a lifetime scholarship to the MDT when it became clear that Kellogg’s mother, a struggling single parent of two, couldn’t afford to pay for continued training.

‘Surrogate daughter’
The relationship between Houlton and Kellogg quickly moved beyond that of mentor and protégée into something deeper. “Loyce’s daughter was an incredible talent,” Kellogg explained, and when Lise Houlton left Minnesota for opportunities in Europe, “I sort of became a surrogate daughter.” As Houlton became ill from diabetes, Kellogg even became her surrogate body. “Loyce was basically paralyzed and would lay on a gurney in the studio. She would describe the choreography she had in her head, and I would dance it out.”

Despite the chance to study and work with a legend of Minnesota dance, Kellogg knew that she lacked what she called the “drive of a diva.” She said, “Dance was not my dream, but I didn’t realize that for a long time. It didn’t come from me; it was imposed on me by Loyce.” And even as a young woman, Kellogg’s body was suffering: Overwork had seriously injured her hip, and anorexia (an occupational hazard for professional dancers) led to hospitalization for kidney failure when she was only 22.

Kellogg had struggled with food issues even before she became a dancer, and the requirements of dancing exacerbated them. Her dance contract stipulated that she could weigh a maximum of 98 pounds (she is 5’4″), and she saw dancers who were what she calls a “normal weight” ostracized. She weighed 79 pounds when she was hospitalized.

Kellogg began shifting her focus to teaching, where she felt she could right some of the wrongs she had experienced. “I’d had some mean, mean teachers who would hit you and tear you down. That was the norm.” In the dance world, it was routine for children to be both verbally and physically abused; though she was a favored dancer, she experienced both.

Paradigm shift
Kellogg wanted to do things differently in her own classes, but other teachers resisted her methods. Once she was nearly fired for being “too nurturing.” She stood firm, though. “You didn’t have to break kids down. I knew you could nurture and raise a healthy, talented dancer. ” Furthermore, “I felt like I needed to give back, the way Loyce gave to me. I have a very maternal instinct, but I never wanted children. I could get that with my students.”

Her longing for connection had roots in her natural affinity for the underdog. Even as a child, Kellogg said, “I had this very strange sense that I should be able to do something to help the world.” She learned first-hand about social inequities when her mother remarried. In an instant the family went from public housing to living in an upper-class neighborhood. But she wasn’t there much to enjoy it; because she danced professionally at a young age, Kellogg left her family home in Forest Lake at the age of 12 and lived in Minneapolis, at first with a family where she did housework in exchange for her room and board, and later with her grandparents.

Traveling in the U.S. and Europe as a dancer, she saw “this whole side of excess and pretense and was uncomfortable with it. How could this be, when other people were suffering?”

The sense of dissonance never left her. “I always felt a connection to people who were really struggling. I feel much more comfortable in their presence.”

One of Kellogg’s dance students happened to be an ice skater and asked her to visit the rink. Ever the supportive teacher, Kellogg offered ideas for her skating program and suddenly found herself a new career opportunity in choreography. In working with figure skaters, “I wanted to apply some of Loyce’s creativity on the ice. I felt it was kind of my duty to teach more than just pliés.” She laughed as she recalled a skating program that addressed the 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square. “My choreography was very angst-filled. More than a lot of dancers, I have always been in my own head.”

Life-changing diagnosis
It was also in 1989 that Kellogg first met Paul Wellstone, before he began his campaign for the U.S. Senate. She said she was instantly struck by the fact that “he lived his words. He was a man of such integrity and passion. I saw his belief in humanity. He had tremendous empathy and I connected with that.”

Their meeting came at a time when Kellogg was ready to explore her childhood urge to save the world. While volunteering for political campaigns, she found that years of promoting herself as a dancer gave her a knack for media relations. Kellogg also began studying for entrance exams to medical school.

But as she studied, she found her mind growing increasingly fuzzy. Her hands tingled and went numb. Her balance failed her. At times she lost her sight and her hearing. At first Kellogg assumed her body was deteriorating from years of dancing, but an MRI revealed she had multiple sclerosis.

Kellogg was devastated. She struggled to accept herself as “someone with a handicap, to suddenly not be in control of my body. I was very suicidal, actually.” Her depression was worsened by painkillers, prescribed for her nerve pain, which left her “catatonic.” Finally, one supportive doctor gave her the courage to detox. “I got mad when this doctor got mad, and I thought, you’re right: This is no way to live.” She has since found a medication balance that helps manage her pain without leaving her incapacitated.

Balancing her sense of self proved a greater challenge. “The hardest part about this disease is to let go, to take things as they come, and to deal with what you’re given. With MS, you literally never know until you put your feet on the ground that day if you’re going to be able to walk.” Kellogg’s identity from childhood was based on control of her body; without that control, she had to start over.

Kellogg said that before the diagnosis, “I was the kind of person who would be in a sailboat, letting the sail out, but not holding the rudder. Now, I’m learning that I need to grab that rudder. I need to live with intention. Paul [Wellstone] started to teach me that, but then I didn’t have the self-confidence,” she admitted.

Giving and receiving
Today, Kellogg said, she feels differently. “MS was a blessing. I have come to see it as a gift. It forced me to really evaluate what was important to me. [The diagnosis helped me] to figure out what I wanted to do when I grow up.”

Kellogg currently works on the campaign staff of Ashwin Madia, a candidate for Minnesota’s Third District seat in the U.S. Congress. She designed a new phone bank system for the campaign that “instead of reading from a script, teaches [phone bank volunteers] to connect.” Kellogg’s aim was no less than “honoring the humanity of every person on the phone no matter what their stage of life.” Her system has even drawn the attention of other campaigns that are interested in applying her holistic technique.

“It’s about letting people know that they count,” she explained. “That they are somebody. We need to empathize with each other. Random acts of kindness are so important. It is so easy to make someone feel good.” She learned that from her mentors: “Loyce really helped me when I was struggling. She took time to learn about me.” Paul Wellstone did the same. Kellogg feels it’s her turn now.

Despite her health challenges, Kellogg remains ambitious. After campaign season ends, she has plans for environmental projects in Minneapolis parks, and she’s started a book about her experience with prescription drugs. And, she added, “I’m going to get to Darfur sometime. I don’t know when.”