Let's Get Things Straight: Dancing with Scoliosis

February 7, 2016

You’re at a checkup with your doctor, and she asks you to roll down and touch your toes. When you straighten up, she tells you there’s a curve in your spine—she thinks you have scoliosis.

Don’t panic! Having a curvy spine, or even wearing a brace, is rarely a reason to stop dancing. Case in point: Former New York City Ballet principal Wendy Whelan, whose scoliosis didn’t prevent her from having an extraordinary career. Dance Spirit spoke with health care pros and dancers to find out what “curvy girls” need to do to stay healthy and keep dancing.

What is scoliosis?

“Scoliosis is an abnormal curvature of the spine,” says Kendall Alway, DPT, a physical therapist and the associate director of the ODC Healthy Dancers’ Clinic in San Francisco, CA. “Usually, the spine, ribs and pelvis appear mostly level and balanced, but with scoliosis, a dancer might have a dropped shoulder and look bent to the side.” There are varying degrees of scoliosis, and while extreme cases can cause your spine to curve like an “S,” it looks different on everyone.

Asking you to touch your toes is the best way for a health care provider to diagnose scoliosis. If you have very noticeable curves, your doctor will probably want to take an X-ray to determine the severity.

It can be scary to be told there’s something wrong with your spine—it’s literally the backbone of your dancing! But scoliosis is actually quite common in dancers. “About one in every four or five dancers has some scoliosis,” Alway says. It can become worse during growth spurts, which typically occur between the ages of 12 and 16, so it’s important to try and catch it early.

How does it affect dancers?

Mild scoliosis shouldn’t hinder your dancing. But larger curves can have a bigger impact on your body: One side might be significantly more flexible and/or stronger than the other. Your shoulders or hips might be uneven, too.

Dancers with scoliosis are also potentially working with poor alignment in their joints because of the twisting in their spines. A 2012 study found that dancers with scoliosis had an increased incidence of foot, knee, hip and spine injury. “Twisted joints become stiff,” Alway says, “so movement is passed to more mobile joints, putting extra strain on them.”

How is it treated?

According to Alway, treatment for scoliosis can involve many different types of therapy. “Physical therapy, joint mobilization, breathing exercises and massage will all help,” she says. “Acupuncture can be used to control discomfort and Pilates can help maintain healthy changes to your body.” Alway stresses that strengthening and stretching the muscles around the spine is essential for treatment, and can even help decrease curves.

Yes, you might have to wear a brace. “If you need it, you need it,” Alway says. “If worn as prescribed, it’s generally 90 percent effective in reducing or stopping curves and preventing the need for surgery.”

Try to find a physical therapist who understands that maximizing and maintaining your range of motion is essential as a dancer. “Work to strengthen your weak side,” Alway says. “It’s important to try not to ‘give in’ to your curves.”

How can you deal?

Marjorie Thompson, Pacific Northwest Ballet School conditioning program director, advocates for lots of communication among dancers, teachers, parents and health care providers. “Find physical therapists and doctors who understand what your dance goals are,” she advises. Dancing with scoliosis is all about developing symmetry within your own body. “It’s about finding your own best possible placement,” Thompson says.

“Curvy Girls”: Two Stories

Gigi Crouch (Lindsay Thomas, courtesy Crouch)

Gigi Crouch
, a former Pacific Northwest Ballet School Professional Division student, was diagnosed with moderate curves in her lumbar, thoracic and cervical spine when she was 13 years old. “I went to an orthopedic surgeon who prescribed a brace,” Crouch says. After she and her family did a little bit of their own research, they decided to try a different type of brace and the Schroth method of physical therapy. “Those methods have really worked to stabilize my curves,” she says.

Paige Fraser (Todd Rosenberg, courtesy Nick Pupillo)

Paige Fraser
, a company member with Visceral Dance Chicago in Chicago, IL, was diagnosed with a 32-degree curve when she was a freshman in high school. One orthopedist suggested she undergo surgery. “But my dad wasn’t comfortable with that,” Fraser says. “We found a chiropracter who dealt specifically with dancers and scoliosis. I saw him twice a week for a few months, and wore a back brace throughout high school. My spine responded well to that treatment.”

Both Crouch and Fraser have found that scoliosis affects their dancing—but they’ve also found ways to make things work on their own bodies. “The hardest thing is finding my center of gravity,” Fraser says. “But ultimately, dealing with scoliosis has made me more aware of my body as a dancer.”

“I think it’s important to find people who are going through the same thing as you are,” Crouch says. She recommends curvygirlsscoliosis.com as a good website for peer-to-peer scoliosis support, both online and in person.

Scoliosis 101

Scoliosis is an abnormal curvature of the spine.

It’s measured by looking at a spinal X-ray to determine how severe it is:

• Under 10 degrees of scoliosis is not significant.

• Over 30 degrees of scoliosis is moderate.

• Over 50 degrees is severe.

It’s most commonly seen in dancers, gymnasts and swimmers. It usually appears between the ages of 10 and 14.