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Health and fitness: thrown a curve: on conquering scoliosis.

When New York City Ballet principal Wendy Whelan learned from her orthopedist that she had a fairly severe case of scoliosis, the news came as a complete surprise. She was 12 years old and had been complaining of a hamstring pull. "I had no idea what it meant," she says now of file diagnosis. "I thought I had a disease." Many young dancers, in fact, don't know they have scoliosis--a curvature and rotation of the spine that causes weakness and imbalance and affects two to three percent of the population, most commonly young girls--and discover their condition purely by accident. The good news is, as Ms. Whelan has so successfully demonstrated, that it need not be a hindrance to a long and fruitful dance career.

"I don't look at scoliosis as a problem," says Marika Molnar, founder of New York's Westside Dance Physical Therapy and NYCB's longtime director of physical therapy. "I know too many professional dancers who have it."

So, say you know you have scoliosis--what then? Students diagnosed in their early teens with years of ballet school under their collective belts actually seem to have a distinct advantage. Time spent training to pull up, stand straight, and be in balance helps to create a longer, stronger back. "Somehow," Molnar explains, "within the neuromotive programming of each individual body, these dancers find a way to reprogram themselves so they can be more centered even in their 'uncenteredness' or asymmetry. Do you notice that the head is off to the right or left? No, it looks like it's in the middle. They've been able to compensate."

San Francisco Ballet physical therapist Michael Leslie agrees with the theory that classical training is one of the best things you can do to help back muscles support curvatures in the spine. "The hope is that a daily barre is enough," he says. "There really isn't one miracle exercise program that beats being in class every day, if you know where your weak spots are."

Whelan, who endured what she calls "the medieval torture chamber" style of treatment when she was a young student (stretching machines and plaster body casts), later relied on a specific ballet regimen and a rigid plastic brace to deal with her scoliosis. Now more than 20 years after the 4 she spent in the brace--which she removed only for ballet class--she relies predominantly on massage, acupuncture, and hot baths to manage her condition. With one side of her back strong on the top, and the other side strong on the bottom, acupuncture in particular helps to relax the muscles that pull on her spine.

From Molnar's perspective, it's good to start from the inside. She teaches her young patients simple deep breathing exercises to get their diaphragms moving up and down, expanding their rib cages with a full inhale through the nose. This helps the spine to find center, she says.

Breathing for scoliosis? "It becomes second nature," says Moluar. "You wake up every morning, brush your teeth, wash your face, and do your breathing exercises. I'm talking about a 10-15-minute session a day." She also recommends seeing a doctor annually to determine if the scoliosis has progressed.

Young dancers may also take solace in the fact that a new soft brace, developed by two pediatric surgeons in Montreal, is currently being marketed in the United States as an alternative to the rigid plastic models commonly prescribed in certain cases. The soft brace, according to Atlanta chiropractor Brian Ouellette, a certified distributor, encourages the patient's own musculature to help correct spinal curvature and rotation, and can be worn under a patient's clothing and kept on during ballet class.

Of course, having a spine shaped like an "S" also necessitates an acute body awareness and a good eye to correct problems that arise in the quest for finely honed technique. About her own body, Whelan says, "I definitely have certain strengths on certain sides that to me are very clear because of my 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."

And then there's the positive attitude. As a young student at the School of American Ballet, Whelan was told to look to then-NYCB principal Heather Watts, a fellow scoliosis patient, as an example of curvature-as-success story. For Whelan, discovering her own body's eccentricities in motion is not something that bothers her. "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." Good advice for anyone.

Kim Okumura is a Los Angeles writer who danced with San Francisco Ballet.
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Title Annotation:Wendy Whelan
Author:Okumura, Kim
Publication:Dance Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2006
Words:800
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