Company dancer Stephanie Sorota shares her story about being a dancer with scoliosis and how Scoliopilates has changed her body.
“Watching Wendy Whelan dance was the first time I recognized scoliosis in another dancer. As she piqued into arabesque, I remember thinking how her arabesque looked like mine, and then, how her arabesque looked like the arabesque of someone with scoliosis. At the time, I knew I was not alone as a dancer with scoliosis since, even within The Washington Ballet, there were several other dancers with scoliosis. However, as I watched Whelan move across the stage, for the first time I recognized myself in the shapes of another dancer’s body as she danced.
I was diagnosed with scoliosis when I was 11, and from ages 11 to 13, I wore a brace 18 hours a day, every day. I took the brace off to dance and to take gym class. There wasn’t any social stigma from wearing a brace, which was fortunate. Nevertheless, being in a brace all day severely impacted my back strength. No matter how many back strengthening exercises I did, I was basically physically incapable of lifting my arabesque above 45 degrees, purely because my spine didn’t work to support itself for three-quarters of the day.
The unfortunate fact about bracing for scoliosis is that the brace does not “fix” anything. The idea behind bracing is that, as a young person with scoliosis goes through their growth spurt, the brace will prevent them from growing more into their curve. There are cases where the brace does nothing, and the curve of the spine continues to worsen even with the brace, and it is never the case that the brace improves an already curved spine. Fortunately, wearing the brace did prevent my curves from increasing, and I was able to avoid back surgery, which would have ended any chance of me becoming a professional dancer.
As a dancer, I recognize that everyone who dances had a side that turns out less, a side that’s stronger, and a more flexible side. Every person has structural or muscular imbalances to some degree. But with scoliosis, the cause of all of my imbalances has one stubborn and easily identifiable root: the increased curvature and rotation of my spine. My left leg will never turn out as much or as easily as my right because of my spine’s rotation at hip-height. I will always worry about my left hip hiking, or my right shoulder hunching forward. Forever and always, I will struggle with my arabesque.
I am, nevertheless, firmly hopeful that everything can be improved. Much of my understanding of how to work with my scoliosis, instead of against it, has come from working with Suzanne Koucheravy in her field of Scoliopilates. Her methods are gentle and quietly challenging. She gives the sort of exercises that look simple but have made me shake from the first repetition on more than one occasion. Incorporating these scoliosis-focused Pilates exercises into my daily routine has helped me beyond words. I have learned to treat the lower, middle, and upper parts of my back as a Rubik’s cube, rotating upper and lower to the left and middle to the right, to counteract how my spine rotates. I’ve learned to shift my shoulders right and hips left to create length and space for my spine to support and bend my body as it needs to while I dance. These are cues specific to my spine and are not cues someone with a straighter spine would ever dream of thinking about from the moment they begin their day.
Often, I do think about these cues from the start of my day because scoliosis does not affect my dancing alone. It influences how I stand, walk, and even how I breathe. But, because I have learned more about the structural intricacies of my body with scoliosis than I ever would have without it, I am strangely grateful. More than this, I am in awe of how other dancers with scoliosis and my own body can organize ourselves to dance as if our spines were straight.” –Stephanie Sorota