Dancing was in my family. My grandmother danced a solo act in Vaudeville and my mother folk-danced. So, when my mother heard about an amazing ballet teacher in the San Fernando Valley near our home, she suggested we try it and I agreed to try ballet lessons. My teacher Sheila understood the technical as well as the artistic demands required to be a ballerina.
Sheila had always wanted to dance for George Balanchine but she had flat feet and couldn’t get en pointe, so she put all her passion into teaching. Her love was infectious and I fell in love with the experience of moving to music in a trained body. She was the one who knew I was suited for New York City Ballet and made sure I auditioned for their summer ballet program.
When I moved to New York everything changed. I had never really seen ballet growing up in LA. Now I was a student at the School of American Ballet (the official school of the NYC Ballet), and I was watching the legendary company founder, George Balanchine and his dancers every day and night. I was in awe.
I became a member of the New York City Ballet in 1984, sadly the year after Balanchine died. Just my second year in the company Peter Martins, then co-director with Jerome Robbins, singled me out to star as the Sugarplum Fairy in “the Nutcracker.” When “young ones” were picked out from the group it was a very big deal. The reviews hailed my partner, Peter Boal and I as “potential stars.”
The next year an even more amazing thing happened in my career, when Peter Martins chose me to be one of 8 up-and-coming dancers to be in his new production. I was ecstatic but frustrated with some strange things happening in my body. I was thirsty all the time, hungry, dizzy and “spaced out” and couldn’t stop peeing.
It was the end of a four-month-long winter season, performing every night. I was exhausted and I was under a tremendous amount of pressure with the premiere coming up. I thought my symptoms were the result of burn-out and I just needed to rest. What got me to the doctor were the sores under my arms that got so infected I couldn’t lift my arms. My precious premier was the next week and I had to be a beautiful ballerina with arms overhead. It was the threat to my performance that made me find out what was going on.
I went to the doctor, had blood work done and was told I had diabetes.
The immediate threat with insulin dependent diabetes is overshooting the insulin and having a hypoglycemic episode. Exercise works like insulin so when I was dancing all day the combined effect sent me shaking with lows all the time. Lows are far more dangerous than highs because you can go into insulin shock. The high blood sugars, on the other hand associated with diabetes cause symptoms that made it difficult for me to perform at my best.
Muscle pain was a big problem. Dancers are always in some kind of muscle distress from the constant work. We took class every day, rehearsed up to six hours and then performed.
A dancer needs to feel every part of his or her body, from fingertips to toes. When my blood sugars were off, even the slightest bit, I couldn’t feel that vital connection. I had taken such good care of my body and now I faced the threat of heart disease and stroke, blindness, kidney failure and leg and foot amputations. Not nice for a dancer to think about.
My journey took me inward. I spent many years asking myself why I was putting myself through the constant up and down struggle that came with trying to perfectly match my insulin doses with performing. I had many life threatening moments, and I was under enormous personal pressure to smile and present myself as having the “potential” everyone raved about.
Was I crazy? Was it worth it? I wanted to quit daily. But I’d force myself to give “just one more performance.” And in that performance I was reminded that yes, it was all worth it. Dance was my life, my true passion and purpose.
My struggle never let up. I committed myself to learning everything I could about how to manage my blood sugar levels, the best way to eat, and the best way to deal with my stress. With that my focus started to shift. I started to let go of my need to perform. Feeling good in my body off-stage as well as on became my goal. I had always been into health, but more for the sake of my life as a dancer. My focus switched to health for the sake of health.
Ironically, as I let go of my identity as a dancer, I was promoted to soloist (a ballet “rank” at which one dances featured and starring roles). I danced for another 7 years with the company, a sixteen-year career onstage. I loved every minute of it. But my heart had already made the turn, and I knew I wanted to give back. I didn’t know how, but I was ready to let go of performing.
I have become extremely active with many organizations dedicated to motivating and educating people – adults and children – to take care of themselves. I often do public speaking about the importance of good nutrition. I meet with groups of diabetics, share my personal story, my struggles and my commitment to taking care of myself, and I get them up and moving to music.
I work with numerous non-profits dedicated to the same message. I also stage Balanchine ballets around the world, as a repetiteur for the George Balanchine Trust. As a ballet teacher I also like to inspire dancers to be healthy and to take care of their bodies.
I think the greatest health challenge today is accessibility to junk; at home, at school, at corner stores. Good nutritious food is satisfying so there are fewer cravings, and healthy food can be just as sweet. But how many parents have the time, the education and the finances? Prepared food is easier and can be much cheaper.
I know for myself, when I eat something unhealthy, sweet or full of chemicals and additives it immediately triggers an addiction and I want more. I can’t stop. And I’m a disciplined dancer. I’m an educated adult with resources who can take the time and make the effort to find healthy alternatives. But most people – and therefore their kids – do not. I’d love to see healthy foods become common-place in our world.
The greatest benefit from my training, besides being able to follow a rigorous routine every day, was that I loved something. I had a passion so intense I would do anything to keep it. If our lives have meaning, we want to feel good. And that’s the greatest challenge for kids – finding meaning and passion in their lives.