Saturday, November 8, 2014

scoliosis en pointe

I recently read of last month's announced retirement of prima ballerina Wendy Whelan from the New York City Ballet Company.  Not that she will retire from dancing.  After all, she's only 47. 
this is what 47 looks like - to only one woman on this earth!
In July of this year 2014, a very good friend of mine in London got tickets for us to see La Wendy at Covent Garden, dancing in a series of pas de deux with four different choreographers.  At one point, I remember her bending forward for a nano-second and was struck by the sight of one shoulder bone raised higher than the other.  This registered to me and I thought "I wonder.....nah! It's just me being hyper-sensitive."  That's because it's something that I have, and other scoliosis sufferers as well.  When we bend forward one side of our backs is higher than the other. 

However, upon reading the program afterwards I found out that Wendy Whelan does indeed have scoliosis.  How did I not know this???

Apparently she found out at 12 years old that she had severe scoliosis, and at that age thought she now had a name for a disease that was causing the leg pain she had been feeling.  She was put into a heavy body brace, but oddly enough was told to continue with her ballet classes as a way to strengthen her muscles. Having already having had several years of ballet lessons was a plus, as she already had learned how to carry an uneven body, to adapt, to develop keen balance, even shoulders, strong leg muscles, stable pelvises (or is it pelvi?).  To give the appearance of a long, straight back. 

it is oh so faint but you can see a slight curve to Wendy's back here
I wonder if this is one of the reasons my own scoliosis wasn't detected until I was 19.  All those ballet and modern jazz classes - 13 years worth by then!  Maybe I had just learned how to compensate, how to intrinsically know when my head was off centre or one shoulder or hip was too high, and had become too good at hiding my imbalance. It was only when I bent forward in front of my mother that it was noticed.

Wendy Whelan has referred to the scoliosis treatment she went through as a teen as "the medieval torture chamber", with stretching machines as well as her rigid brace and a series of demanding exercises in a ballet regimen that was her only escape from the brace itself, as well as massage, acupuncture, and hot baths.  One week a month, she had to go to the hospital and spend 20 hours a day in traction. Then she'd get plastered up in her body cast again and sent back home to live a "normal" life.

Lots of ballet mad young girls are now being taught the single most important lesson all we twisted sisters and brothers need to learn - how to do simple, deep breathing exercises that get our diaphragms moving up and down and our ribcages expanding with a full inhale through the nose and exhale out the mouth. Preferably at the beginning of each day, when the spine can find centre more easily. Breathing for scoliosis is now second nature to me and my body definitely feels looser than the days when I forget or can't make the time.

Let me reiterate: The best thing in the world to do each am is to rise, brush your teeth, wash your face, drink a glass of water and do breathing exercises - about 10-15 minutes should do it.

Marika Molnar, founder of New York's Westside Dance Physical Therapy and director of physical therapy at the New York City Ballet says she knows loads of professional dancers with scoliosis and doesn't see it per se as a problem. Of course having a twisted spine means a dancer has to have an acute body awareness and a good eye (in the mirror) and sense (when not in a mirror) to correct problems that arise when one seeks the bodily perfection of a ballerina.
La belle Wendy is refreshingly open about her scoliosis and has become a bit of a leader to those of us who always thought things like professional dancing was out of the question.  She gives credit for her current strength to all those years of training and going to class in that horrid heavy plaster cast.  Braces are much softer now of course.  It's still an archaic and dubiously successful form of treatment, but at least its stigmatized and helpless sufferers are slightly more comfortable. (I am saying this with a acidic drip of irony by the way)

Huge kudos to Wendy for sticking it out.  Having a positive attitude of course is huge. When she was student at the School of American Ballet, she was encouraged to look up to the then principal dancer at the New York City Ballet, Heather Watts, who also had scoliosis patient.  Oh how lucky it is to find a real live hero or heroine at the right time and place!  It must have been a enormous lift to the spirits to see someone with the same body issue go on and succeed in such a demanding and public profession. Wendy knows that she has certain strengths on certain sides that are particularly visible to her because of her scoliosis. "I'm always having to pull my right shoulder back, for example, especially when I'm turning. It curves to the front and I have to really open it up."

When asked about her body's eccentricities she replied, "I think my scoliosis gives me character--it adds something to the way I move. And even when I do feel the crookedness in my spine at my age, I don't let it bother me--it's just part of who I am."  And who she is is a 47 year old dancer with the body of a 20 year old - and a 20 year old professional dancer at that - who both deals with and embraces her scoliosis. What she is is a hugely successful ballerina and an inspiration to young dancers and would-be dancers who also have scoliosis.


1 comment:

  1. Scoliosis is classified into a number of different categories which helps to predict prognosis and treatment of people with scoliosis. These categories are based in part on the underlying disease process which may have influenced the cause, presents, or progression of the abnormal spinal curvature.