Dancing With a Chronic Medical Condition: 4 Pros on How They Make it Work

March 25, 2018

Day in and day out, dancers expect their bodies to perform at the highest level of athletic and artistic achievement. However, some develop chronic medical conditions that prevent them from doing their best consistently. Still, many learn to manage their symptoms while dancing professionally. Pointe spoke with four dancers who haven’t let medical problems stop them.

Holloway and Nicholas Rose in Glen Tetley’s “Dialogues.” Photo by Nan Melville, Courtesy DTH.

Alicia Holloway

At 13, Alicia Holloway almost quit dancing. Her asthma was so bad that she struggled for every breath during rehearsals. However, today the Dance Theatre of Harlem artist maintains a professional rehearsal and performance schedule.

To do so, Holloway takes good care of herself. To ward off illness, which aggravates her asthma, she sticks to a healthy diet: a lot of protein to build muscle, veggies for energy and sweets rarely. Also, when Holloway has physically demanding roles, she does extra cardio to build her stamina.

Despite these measures, Holloway’s asthma occasionally erupts during class or rehearsals. In addition to fighting to breathe during her attacks, which last 2 to 15 minutes, Holloway worries she could pass out and hit her head. Therefore, she keeps her inhaler nearby and takes breaks when she needs them.

“When I feel an asthma attack coming on, I’ll say, ‘Give me a second and let me relax, and I’ll be ready,’ ” she says.

Also, touring can be challenging for Holloway when the company performs in a high-altitude location. If her body can’t acclimate, another dancer takes her place.

Holloway says she has always been supported by her artistic director and fellow company members when her asthma flares up. Even so, she says, she must put in the extra effort to ensure it doesn’t interfere with her dancing or her career.

“I have to work 100 percent harder than others,” Holloway says. “But if you have the will, you can do it.”

Haskins in Michael Smuin’s “Fly Me to the Moon.” Photo by Keith Sutter, Courtesy Smuin Ballet.

Nicole Haskins

Two years ago Smuin Ballet dancer Nicole Haskins was diagnosed with psoriasis. The disease, which causes raised, itchy, painful red patches on the skin, can be aggravated by many elements dancers encounter daily, such as perspiration, tight-fitting clothing, and the harsh detergents and dyes used on costumes.

Haskins follows an extensive holistic regimen to keep her disease under control. “Taking care of psoriasis has become part of my routine, like brushing my teeth,” she says. For instance, she uses all-natural soaps and lotions. Haskins also keeps her skin moisturized, which can be tricky when she’s performing—if she mistimes it, she gets the stage oily. To keep sweat from irritating her skin, she frequently changes her dance clothes, which are made of high-quality fabrics and washed in all-natural detergents. She also uses an all-natural cleanser to remove stage makeup (the only makeup she wears).

Keeping inflammation and stress down is important, too. Therefore, Haskins eats a healthy diet, sees an acupuncturist and takes herbal supplements. She also practices yoga, journals and meditates.

Despite her efforts, Haskins says, she often has patches of psoriasis.”But that doesn’t mean I don’t have things to offer,” she says. “It’s all in how we embrace what we have and use it to its greatest potential.”

Walborn eats a high-calorie diet to keep her Crohn’s disease in check. Photo by Ed Flores, Courtesy Walborn.

Sarah Walborn

In 2016, after a decade of remission, freelance dancer Sarah Walborn’s Crohn’s disease flared up, and it almost ended her career. Walborn suffered the severe gastrointestinal distress typical of Crohn’s and lost weight and muscle. The company she was with said she didn’t look well enough to perform and took away her roles, Walborn recalls. She left at the end of the season.

“They didn’t know how to deal with the situation and weren’t supportive,” Walborn says. After taking more than a year to heal and get back in shape, she resumed her career.

Today, Walborn maintains specific protocols to keep the disease in check. She sticks to a healthy, high-calorie diet that maintains her weight. Next, she surrounds herself with positive people, sees a chiropractor and gets massages to alleviate the stress that could bring on an episode. When Walborn does feel one coming on, she takes a steroid to prevent a full-blown attack. And, occasionally, she’ll take sick days to recover from a flare-up.

Walborn hopes more dancers and companies will openly discuss medical issues. “It’s important to acknowledge that as dancers we may have medical conditions, but we shouldn’t have to label ourselves as a sick person,” she says. “We live with it, but it doesn’t define you as a dancer.”

Long, here in “Rubbies,” works regularly with a physical therapist for her scoliosis. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy MCB.

Jordan-Elizabeth Long

At 12, Miami City Ballet soloist Jordan-Elizabeth Long was diagnosed with scoliosis. In a year’s time, the curve in her spine had grown so severe that Long was immediately fitted for a back brace. She wore the brace for a year, removing it only for ballet classes and showers. The next year, Long wore it at night.

By taking care of her back then and now, Long says her scoliosis hasn’t limited her as a dancer.

Long’s number-one spine-health strategy is to work regularly with a physical therapist and Pilates instructor. (Because she has a flexible back, Long has had minimal pain from scoliosis.)

Second, Long constantly adjusts her body to accommodate her spinal curvature: She keeps her right side back for pirouettes; pulls her right shoulder down and back for penchés; and checks the mirror to make sure her port de bras looks correct. “I must think of those things all the time, every day,” Long says.

In addition, Long helps her partners understand her needs. For example, because her back is rounded, she tells her partners she must place her arm farther back than other dancers.

Though Long says her scoliosis forces her to “work smart,” she doesn’t consider it a shortcoming. “All dancers have gifts and weaknesses,” she says. “Dance is about what you bring to the stage that is different from other people.”

If It’s You

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, you don’t have to tell your employer you have a medical condition. Further, unless you require reasonable accommodations (i.e., a diabetic needing breaks to get an insulin shot) or there is reason to believe you cannot perform the job successfully or safely because of your condition, an employer may not ask about it. Also, they can’t withdraw a job offer or terminate you because of a medical condition unless you pose a direct threat to yourself or to others, or you can’t perform the job even when reasonable accommodations are provided.

However, disclosing that you have a chronic condition could benefit you. Boston Ballet’s artistic director Mikko Nissinen says it’s best that he knows a dancer has a medical problem as soon as possible, upon hiring if not during the interview. “No one can help them if they don’t let you know,” he says. “The dancer must open the dialogue so everyone can be understanding and supportive.”

Zippora Karz, a former New York City Ballet soloist who developed type 1 diabetes early in her career (and wrote about her experiences in her memoir The Sugarless Plum), recommends informing artistic staff in a way that reassures them that you can do the job: “Tell them, ‘I have this condition, but it’s well under control and I’m very responsible with it.’ ” Also, Karz adds, by opening up, you can enlist a company friend to be a safety net—someone who recognizes the signs when something is off and knows what to do to help.