Navigating scoliosis in ballet can sometimes feel like wading muddy waters, Suzanne is a guiding light of knowledge in those times. This post not only discusses the best ways to use and care for your curves, but also the pressures of striving for a ballet career, and Suzanne’s journey from dancer to academic and back to dance again. It was an absolute joy to get insight to the mind of such a phenomenal woman and I learnt more than I could possibly summarise. Whether you have scoliosis or not, you are sure to gain very valuable lessons from this conversation, and I can’t wait to see how you apply those lessons to your own journey. Disclaimer* all of Suzanne’s amazing insights could not be put into a blog post word for word. Hence, some of her answers have been slightly condensed with her approval.
What is your current profession, and can you give some dot points regarding your background in dance?
I am a Master Scolio-Pilates® practitioner , Polestar Pilates Certified Comprehensive, NCPT. Currently I work virtually with dancers in Pilates, Scolio-Pilates® and dancers during their rehabilitation periods.
When I was young, sickly flatfooted kids were told to start ballet, so I did. From the beginning I absolutely loved it! I trained semi professionally, and at 16 attended a summer program with a company that at the time was based in New York. I was offered a full scholarship for the fall, however deferred to complete high school. Three days after receiving my high school diploma, I was on a train back to NY and began my traineeship with that same company. I stayed there for three years, however didn’t continue into the company. I simply couldn’t meet their aesthetic pressures whilst staying healthy and maintaining enough strength to dance at the level I was. Fast forward a few years, my husband had a career as a second lieutenant in the army and I needed to find a job using the skills I knew. That’s when I began teaching dance, and soon discovered I rather liked it. As an army family that moved place to place teaching was something I was able to do wherever we went, which was definitely a bonus. Fast forward a few more years, we were stationed in Kansas where I finished my degree with a B.S in Theater/Dance. After 15 years and 10 moves we arrived in the Washington DC area with my husband stationed at the Pentagon, that’s where we have remained. After a very serious achilles injury, and subsequent surgery with disappointing results, I sought out BodyDynamics, a physical therapy clinic that specializes in dance medicine. Upon completing my rehab they offered me a job, so I transitioned into the pilates side of things within a dance rehabilitative scenario. I hesitated to take the job at first, since I knew nothing about pilates, but the clinic director said “you know how to teach, we’re just going to give you a different vocabulary”. At the time of my achilles injury, I had the dream jobs of faculty at Maryland Youth Ballet, adjunct professor at George Mason dance department, and faculty at the Academy of Classical Acting at George Washington University. However, the reality was that my body couldn’t continue teaching ballet for much longer, so I transitioned to solely teaching pilates in a clinical setting. Working at Body Dynamics meant I could still have my fill of ballet with all the dancers coming through the door. Until the COVID shut down I saw clients in the clinic at BDI and privately in Alexandria.
What did your transition from ballet training to school look like?
The first time I went to college was when I was living in NYC. I began studying science at NYU with a major in chemistry, that’s when I met my husband. We were married with the idea I was going to finish my college degree at our first duty station, as at that point I’d done three semesters at NYU. Unfortunately, that was not possible so my college education halted until around 12 years and 4 kids later when we found ourselves in Kansas. That’s where I gained a B.S. in Theater, concentration in Dance at Kansas State University, Sum Cum Laude.
Do you feel the aesthetic pressure of ballet you experienced has improved at all in recent times?
I believe it has improved in some ways, and hasn’t in others. In my day, we were flat out told to achieve certain weights and even encouraged to do so using some dangerous means. I’ve found the passion to dance may lead artists to have a mindset of doing whatever it takes for the career they want so badly, and that can be detrimental both physically and emotionally. Developments such as dance medicine (which didn’t exist when I was training) have allowed for more knowledge and care for dancers’ bodies, but I don’t feel things have changed enough and the aesthetic pressure is of course still there. Luckily, the teaching body and parents are made much more aware of things today, but time after time things are commonly accepted that are not ok in order to get the part or keep the job.
Do you have a favourite quote/poem/piece of art?
I have two favourite quotes
“Compassion is the keen awareness of the interdependence of all things” Thomas Merton
“You can do no great things. Only small things with great love” Mother Teresa of Calcutta
When did you come across Scolio-Pilates®?
I was working as a personal trainer and had a young girl come onto my schedule. She was 13 and in a brace for 22 hours a day, but still in massive pain. She couldn’t really do anything, I didn’t know how to help her, and none of the clinic PT’s had many ideas either. Around the same time, I received the Polestar newsletter advertising a workshop for Scolio-Pilates® being run not far from me. At one point in the class, those of us without scoliosis were put on the wedges to experience what normal pilates is like for scoliosis clients. With only five exercises I was all over the place, it was fascinating! I took some wedges back to my young client and kept trying these new techniques I was absorbing from Karena Thek’s book (the founder of Scolio-Pilates ®). Eventually my client was not only out of pain, but gaining strength! The PT’s started referring their scoliosis clients to me and I kept learning as much as was available. I loved honing the Scolio-Pilates® techniques to apply it to dancers and continued on to become a teacher and mentor for other practitioners.
Do you feel there is an artistic lens that can be given to the curves of a spine?
Absolutely. You’ve got to be creative to figure out why the body is moving the way it is. Of course you need the scientific base to understand it, and I like to look at the X-rays and hear the science behind it, but then I just want to see the body move through space; to me that’s the artistic part of it. I also find many dancers respond a lot better to imagery cues opposed to anatomical ones. For example, you could say “fire your erector spinae” or something
like “ imagine you have champagne bubbles running up your spine”. I love being creative with those visualizations.
What are some ways dancers can care for their curves whilst creating at home?
Educate yourself about your curves and what is available to support you and your goals. Just as you brush your teeth every morning, you need to keep up with your spine maintenance program. We’re home and sitting a whole lot more so it becomes about the fundamentals of elongate, de-rotate, side shift, use your breath work. Use your best posture all the way through
the day, don’t think that just because you’re not in the studio and doing that format of exercise, your curves are going to take a day off… they won’t.
What perceived ‘failure’ has turned into your most helpful lesson on your journey thus far?
We were living in Germany off post, my husband had been out on field exercises for several weeks and at that time I had a 4 year old 2 year old and five month old at home. My two year old was having one of those days and I was desperately attempting to get her shoes on. I remember just hitting the wall, sitting down, and sobbing. The two year old and four year old stood patiently there in front of me and I looked up at them and thought ‘well no one’s going to save you, get up off the couch’. It’s just a little story, but it reminds me that even when times are overwhelming, we are all so much stronger than we think we are in that moment. It is important to keep things in perspective and not take myself so seriously, because at that moment my young children had their act together better than I did!
They say that the pen is mightier than the sword. So if you could describe one word to be your weapon in life, what would it be?
‘Simplicity’ reminds me of St Therese of Lisieux ’s writing about ‘her little way,’
to do good, without expecting notice or reward.
Love Simply. Simply love.
What would you say to someone who doesn’t actively include creativity in their life, due to being drawn to the factual and scientific side of things? Would you encourage them to nurture creativity, and if so how would you suggest they do that?
My husband is a factual mathematician, and I’m an artistic person who sees patterns in movement, colours, and music. I always tease him that I’m the technicolour to his monochromatic. Watching and encouraging my husband to nurture his creativity has been amazing, he just had to find an outlet that made his heart sing. I would say that he is very creative because he found his artistic side in woodworking which requires very exact calculations. We have to realise there is creativity in analysis, it’s just expressed differently.
I admire that you always seek to learn and grow your understanding with the times. What qualities do you feel aids this, and what advice would you give to others who wish to continue growing?
You have to have a lively curiosity and a good sense of fun. Never stop asking questions. ‘Why’ is not a sign of weakness or ignorance. You will find gracious people who will agree to include you in their search for why. Don’t be afraid to fail or get the answer wrong, you will learn something new either way. It’s all part of the journey.
Can you give a specific example of how scolio-pilates® has enhanced someone’s artistic lifestyle? *note from Sarah, I couldn’t recommend the blog post about Stephanie more highly, it’s linked below.
The goal of Scolio-Pilates® for dancers has been to minimize the impact of their asymmetries while maintaining the dancers expressiveness in dancing. My goal is to educate the dancers about their curves and develop individual strategies for their warm up, considering both restorative work and technique. A big moment for me was when after implementing scolio-pilates techniques, every one of my professional dancer clients made it through an entire Nutcracker season without being sidelined from injury!
The Washington Ballet published a post on their blog To The Pointe about one of my clients Stephanie Sorota, and our journey together around her scoliosis. I would definitely recommend anyone interested reading that.
In my understanding, you value your faith. Has your faith ever impacted your approach to art? If so, can you give a specific example?
My faith has always been my anchor in life when at times everything else seems to slosh about around me. It requires me to let go “why” and believe in hope. We are all given gifts, and they are to be used with gratitude. As a kid, I would always offer up every performance as prayer, and I still pray for every one of my clients before I see them. I ask to have the wisdom and the guidance to listen and be what that client/person needs me to be that day. My faith has been a guiding light to see that every life is a sacred, divine, gift. Ask for guidance from God, and God will send people into your life to give you the answers. Finding Scolio Pilates® is one of the many examples of a path I never imagined I would travel. I am grateful to be here at this time and this place.
What is one thing that’s integral for you while striving for a holistic approach to life?
This is an interesting question because I find it difficult to name just one element! I have come to understand that I need time alone and to appreciate the value of silence within each day. When the children were young I would get up before everyone so I could have a few minutes of quiet before the day began. With the lockdown I have found maintaining a connection with my family and the dancers if only through zoom sessions is extremely important.
What ways would you like to see readers’ minds expand with this interview?
Studies have indicated 30% of dancers have scoliosis. Scoliosis does not have to be limiting but it requires specific mindful corrections incorporated into every aspect of your day. Scolio-Pilates® is nuanced and very gentle work – yet the changes are profound. Each spine has a story, a journey, and a lesson for us all. I want readers to always know there is hope for maintenance of scoliosis and that you are not alone. A dancer’s curvature is an intrinsic part of their architecture, movement quality and artistic expression. Know your curve and be excited about the adventure! Something I would love everyone to learn is that you first have to accept that you’re truly loveable and that you are loved. Only then will you be able to accept the fact that it’s okay to strive to not only help others, but in the same way help yourself.
You can find Suzanne on IG @benemotus_scolio_pilates or reach out via email at email@example.com
Featured picture credit: xmbphotography