Dancing With Scoliosis

June 23, 2009

Faye Hideko Warren has dealt with more serious physical ailments at the start of her career than many dancers do in a lifetime. Being diagnosed with scoliosis in grade school was traumatic—and life-changing. As if that weren’t enough, while she was on tour with ABT II at White Oak in February of 2007, she slipped on her pointe during a turn, seriously injuring her knee. She’s been sidelined ever since. But Faye is determined to dance professionally again and always chooses to look on the bright side. She thinks her physical challenges have taught her more about her body than any anatomy lesson ever could, and that the second time around she’s going to be better equipped to deal with her scoliosis. 

Currently, she’s living at home in New Mexico, performing with a local dance company and working toward returning to a professional dance career. If this is physically impossible, she’s considering acting as her next endeavor! To learn more about dancing with scoliosis from Faye, read on.

I first started dancing at Alwin School of the Dance in Albuquerque when I was 5 after

taking gymnastics for a year. Then I was diagnosed with juvenile idiopathic scoliosis when I was almost 9. Since the impact of gymnastics is really bad for an unstable spine, the doctors told me I had to quit. However, I could continue dancing because there isn’t as much danger or force as there is in tumbling.

I liked gymnastics, but I wasn’t planning on being an Olympian, so the news wasn’t earth-shattering. But it was very frustrating to be told that I couldn’t do something—that my body couldn’t handle it. What was worse, though, was that at age 10, the doctors told me I was supposed to wear a back brace for 23 hours a day until I stopped growing. The brace holds the spine in place and prevents the curves from getting worse. I was only allowed to take it off when I was showering or dancing. That’s when I started taking every sort of class my studio offered—about 20 hours a week!—so I could spend all afternoon without my brace on.

Being diagnosed with scoliosis gave me a lot of drive: I didn’t want to be told I couldn’t dance, too. So when I was 14, I moved to NYC to study at ABT. Then I got hired into the Studio Company (now ABT II) for a year until I severely injured my knee. Now I’m home in New Mexico training at Alwin School of the Dance again and working with a personal trainer, as well as taking yoga, kickboxing, Gyrotonic and Feldenkrais classes.

Managing My Scoliosis

At age 16, I started feeling a lot more pain, so I’ve been using somatic practices to keep my back healthy. I was done growing, but hormones can have a huge effect on the musculature around your spine. When you’re tired, your hormones are out of whack or you’re in a bad mood, your spine can compress. For someone with scoliosis, this means that you can also be more crooked.

There are days when you’re in a lot of pain, and then there are days when you’re fine. It’s really hard to control. The worst pain was when I went on tour with the Studio Company. I had so many people helping me take care of my back at home, but as soon as I went on tour without a team of people, my back went out of whack.

When my knee was first injured, my scoliosis got better because I was forced to not do anything for a while. But muscle tone is really important to support your spine. So then once I got out of shape, my back reverted to its normal self and it wasn’t doing so well.

Getting enough rest is key to managing scoliosis. When I was growing, I would have days when I’d wake up after a good night’s rest with my back properly supported and my depth perception was all messed up because I had woken up a little taller!

At first when I was in Studio Company I would push myself because everybody else was, but after a while I started to have pain from not taking care of my body. I had to miss rehearsals for a couple of weeks in order to recover. My muscles were just too tired from holding my spine up, and that resulted in muscle spasms. I had to relax. I did a lot of Rolfing, a method of deep-tissue manipulation, and it’s been a saving grace all my life.

A Spine Is Still a Spine

Managing scoliosis takes a lot of work, but having it has actually helped me when executing choreography, because my range of motion tends to be more extreme than other people’s. I have to be careful not to overdo it, though, and to communicate with the choreographer. They’ll love me for a week and then when I can’t move anymore they’re like, ‘What’s wrong with you?’

I think people forget my spine is still a spine, though, and most spines with scoliosis don’t have any actual deformities in the bone. It’s just that for some reason they don’t line up correctly. A lot of people think I might break if they even touch me. I threw out my back the summer before I started Studio Company. A disk slipped a little out of place, which had nothing to do with my scoliosis, but because I have scoliosis I was advised to see my orthopedist, who ended up just performing a routine adjustment. I was left with the problem for almost a day, though. Because it wasn’t relieved immediately I couldn’t do anything for four or five days.

I used to think I knew so much about my body because I had scoliosis, and I had to find new ways to do simple things. But now I realize I was just cheating correct alignment. Because I’m now forced to constantly think about my alignment to protect my knee, I understand even more about how correct alignment also helps my back. I’ve learned so much about my body from being injured that I feel like the second time around I’m actually going to be able to deal with the scoliosis better.

Rosalie O’Connor