Maverick Life

Bent but not broken — dancing with scoliosis

By Emilie Gambade 20 June 2020
Caption
Paige Fraser (Image by Tyler James)

‘Understanding your curves, your imbalance and understanding what your body naturally does. It takes years and years of practice and patience.’ American ballet dancer Paige Fraser shares her experience of dancing against all odds.

Born and raised in the Bronx in New York, Paige Fraser started to dance at the age of four. “My parents are from Jamaica, they were immigrants to the United States. [They] worked very hard to send me to good schools that were not in the Bronx … At the age of four, my mom saw that I had a natural ability to just dance. I was always dancing around the house; there was one moment where we were at the mall and I was dancing around and this other lady nudged my mom and said you should put her into dance classes.”

Fraser joined a “very small” ballet studio in Westchester, a suburb of New York. At first, she says, dance was a hobby, something she did for fun. But, six years later, her teacher cast her in the role of Clara in the 1892 two-act ballet The Nutcracker.

“This was a really big deal because my dance studio at the time was predominantly white; there were predominantly white dancers and I was one of very few dancers of colour. For my teacher to cast me as Clara was a really big deal, especially in Westchester County.” The opportunity turned Fraser’s hobby into “a burning-desire passion”.

For a dancer, or anyone, being diagnosed with scoliosis can be, as she puts it, “a make it or break it moment”.

“I was very, very serious about it. A lot of the kids back in my neighbourhood in the Bronx didn’t really understand my commitment and dedication. I had such a different-level understanding of focus. From that age, because of dance, it really allowed me to just focus on the technique and working every day to be perfect and working on my craft. I am so grateful because dance was something I leaned on during times when, you know, things were going on within my family or just life in general. It’s been something that I’ve always leaned on for comfort and therapy.”

Paige Fraser (Image by Todd Rosenberg)

When she turned 13 and ready for high school, Fraser enrolled at the Professional Performing Arts High School in Manhattan, which joined forces with the prestigious Alvin Ailey dance school in 1995.

“It was, again, another turning point, going from just dancing as a hobby to now dancing every day, Monday through Friday; to dance two to three dance classes a day … I was also introduced to and around all types of artists, musical theatre, singers, actors, everyone in the arts. It was amazing,” she recalls warmly.

With scoliosis, you’re basically figuring all that out, within your body being off, and you’re finding out what your neutral is. You’re finding out what your sense of ground is every day; you wake up, your body may feel different, you may wake up and your neck is kind of stiff or your low back is stiff.

But then, she was diagnosed with scoliosis, “a medical condition in which a person’s spine has a sideways curve. The curve is usually ‘S’- or ‘C’-shaped over three dimensions. In some, the degree of curve is stable, while in others it increases over time.”

“It goes from zero to 100 very quickly. It’s just: you either live with this or you get surgery and the surgery consists of placing metal rods and screws into your back to straighten the curve to fuse your spine.”

Paige Fraser (Image by Nomee Photography)

For a dancer, or anyone, being diagnosed with scoliosis can be, as she puts it, “a make it or break it moment”.

“It just kind of came out of nowhere, like a bomb just explodes. It was terrifying. I was scared. Hearing the doctor say that his best recommendation is surgery,” she says.

Fraser and her parents found a chiropractor who recommended she wear a corrective back brace instead, supported with chiropractic treatment. For years, she wore two back braces, one during the day while at school and one while sleeping. “Talk about restrictions! Dance was my only place, the only time I felt free because I did not have to wear this back brace.”

Her curve stopped progressing and, eventually, doctors told her she had stopped growing and there was little chance the scoliosis would worsen.

“This is kind of what you’re stuck with for the rest of your life. But with dance that creates its own issues, because I still have a curvature and I still have to relearn my body; I have to come to terms with never being fully aligned because with scoliosis one side of your back is overdeveloped, which affects your alignment.

“In dance, we use the word square. Your hips, your shoulders, everything needs to be square. Everything needs to be even, everything needs to be balanced, to be able to do turns, to be able to stand on one leg. With scoliosis, you’re basically figuring all that out, within your body being off, and you’re finding out what your neutral is. You’re finding out what your sense of ground is every day; you wake up, your body may feel different, you may wake up and your neck is kind of stiff or your low back is stiff.

“Really understanding your curves, understanding your imbalance, and understanding what your body naturally does. It takes years and years of practice and understanding. And it takes a lot of patience.”

Paige Fraser (Image by Melika Dez for the Black Iris Project)
Paige Fraser (Image by Beth Phillips)
Paige Fraser (Image by Omar Z. Robles)

At 29 years of age and a career that has taken her around the world, on tours with The Lion King, working on a commercial with Beyonce, or the cast of Empire, it is still a process and one that she takes very seriously.

The key is movement, breath and expansion in space, right?

“I still take class specifically for my spine. I take floor bar, I take yoga for scoliosis. I still do ballet; all these things contribute to helping me maintain life with no pain.

“The key is movement, breath and expansion in space, right? You want to expand and open up those tight areas in your back. And that’s only possible through breath and movement. So that’s why I’ve become such an advocate and letting people know,” she explains.

And indeed, watching Fraser dance is witnessing the body expand, stretch, twist and motion; her every gesture – breathtaking, empowering – is an ode to freedom of movement and the beauty of dance.

Paige Fraser (Image by Todd Rosenberg)

Fraser launched her foundation, the Paige Fraser Foundation, in 2017 as she wanted dancers like herself to feel comfortable in the skin they’re in.

“I wanted them to know that they’re not alone. I wanted them to not be ashamed. I wanted them to know that they had someone they could reach out to, a safe space where they could reach out to us and let us know what they’re going through. Our mission is to create a safe space for dancers, artists with or without disabilities.”

By keeping it quiet, it’s a disservice to you because then you’re struggling alone

The foundation offers two programmes. “Dance is Healing” is a free annual workshop for anyone who loves to dance – “whether you have a spinal condition, whether you are in a wheelchair, as long as you love to dance, we welcome you” – while “Spine Series” is specifically for people with spinal conditions.

“I always advise young dancers that are training to speak up and let their teachers know what’s going on. I know a lot of people don’t like to say anything because they don’t want to be treated differently. And it’s not. It’s not that you’re being treated differently. Young dancers need to understand that this is a time when your body is changing, you’re growing, things are happening to your anatomy. And, on top of it, now you have scoliosis, which makes things a bit more challenging for you. It’s not that by telling someone, you are asking for a handout or any kind of favouritism or pity. I never wanted pity. By speaking up, I had more people in my corner that understood and were able to provide me with exercises, with tips and advice. By keeping it quiet, it’s a disservice to you because then you’re struggling alone.”

In collaboration with two fellow dancers who also suffer from scoliosis, Beckanne Sisk, a principal dancer with Ballet West, and Jacqueline Green, a principal dancer with the Alvin Ailey company, Fraser launched the “Bent but not Broken” campaign to create awareness about scoliosis – June is “scoliosis month” around the world – and to celebrate dancers who have had to fight against the odds to be where they are today.

Jacqueline Green (Image courtesy of Paige Fraser)
Jacqueline Green (Image courtesy of Paige Fraser)

Their video “breaks down what scoliosis is, who it affects, and also how we defied odds, how we pushed past this limitation and made our dreams come true”. Fraser adds: “We have scoliosis, we spend time working and perfecting our craft, we deal with uncertainty and we have to find the strength within ourselves, to find the tenacity, the courage, to face it head on and just dance.”

She also participates in panel discussions to tell people “how we each push past this obstacle”.

“A lot of us dancers don’t really like to talk. We use movement to express ourselves. So that’s what you see in the film: dancers with scoliosis, dancers who have had the surgery, a young dancer in her back brace; you see us all represented and that’s what the film is about.

“It is just representing us, showing us in a beautiful and positive light. I wanted this to just be a beacon of light, hope and inspiration.” DM/ML

To support the Paige Fraser Foundation, go to the page and click to the ‘Donate’ tab.

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