Health & Body

How to Spot—and Train—Dancers With Scoliosis

Scoliosis is a condition in which the spine, when viewed from the back, has one or more curves. The vertebrae are abnormally rotated, which creates twisting and more prominent visibility of the rib cage on one side, and it is most commonly seen in adolescents ages 10 and older. Most cases cannot be reversed, but they can be controlled, for example dancer Paige Fraser who despite suffering from severe scoliosis, has thrived as a dancer. Dance teachers can play an essential role in spotting the condition at an early stage.

“Teachers can help to notice that scoliosis is there in the first place," says Sophia Fatouros, a New York City–based dance teacher and and former professional ballet dancer who has struggled with scoliosis since she was 12. “Parents do not always see their children in tight clothes, like leotards."


So what should you keep an eye out for during class? In addition to a curved spine, other warning signs are: head not centered directly above the pelvis; uneven shoulders; one raised hip; rib cage sides at different heights; uneven waist; changes in color or texture of skin overlying the spine (like dimples or hairy patches); entire body leans to one side; fatigue; difficulty breathing.

Sophia Fatouros shows the extra effort it takes to keep her curved spine aligned. Courtesy of Fatouros

Once you notice that a dancer may have scoliosis, the next step is to alert the student and her parents. But, “encourage the student to continue with her dance career," recommends Fatouros, who is the former director of dance at The Harlem School of the Arts. “Let her know it's not over." Wendy Whelan, Deanna McBrearty, Alexandra Ansanelli and Katie Bergstrom, for instance, all had successful careers with New York City Ballet after being diagnosed with scoliosis in varying degrees.

Every case is unique, says Rebecca Dietzel, an anatomist who works with The Ailey School. “Dancers need to find a physical therapist to pinpoint where the curves are happening and to get personalized exercises." And while scoliosis is not usually painful, if a dancer does develop pain, it is important to see a doctor. “She should be encouraged to see her health care provider and bring back recommendations for movement modifications to the teacher," says Karen Clippinger, a dance professor at California State University at Long Beach and author of Dance Anatomy and Kinesiology, who was diagnosed with mild scoliosis as a teen.


Video created by Short Stack Creative


If a dancer has a curve of 10 to 15 degrees, her doctor may suggest exercises that will strengthen the muscles around her spine (see below for a spine-strengthening exercise). Fatouros recommends trying Hanna Somatics, a system of neuromuscular mind-body training that helps improve spinal strength and symmetry. While there is still debate about the effectiveness of back braces, some doctors suggest that patients with a curve between 20 and 40 degrees wear one, and they can be removed during class. If a curve is greater than 40 degrees, the dancer may need surgical treatment.

When a dancer undergoes surgery for scoliosis, parts of the spine are fused together or may be held in place by a rod, which immobilizes those joints. “She can no longer move that part of the spine," Dietzel says. “Movement will come from above or below those joints, and the movement will look different. Teachers should not compare the student to how she moved before surgery or to other dancers in class." After surgery, Clippinger advises, teachers should promote the use of abs to support the spine. “Because the fused segment moves as a unit, the vertebrae adjacent tend to bear extra stress," she says. “Students should use the abdominals to support and distribute the arch of the spine throughout the area that is moveable."

But don't fret: There's no need to overhaul or create special combinations for students with scoliosis. Most can do all movements, unless advised otherwise by their doctor. Simply using certain imagery in class instruction can help these students work on maintaining a straight posture. “Use images that are strong and balanced," Fatouros advises, “like a fountain that comes straight through the body and goes out in all directions."

Another helpful technique is to think about pulling up with the front of the body and down with the back of the body. “You can use a physical or verbal cue to help a student bring the shoulder forward or hip bone back so that it is even with the other side," Clippinger says. “Encouraging the student to feel the weight evenly placed on the feet and to keep the hips and shoulders square with the rib cage directly above the pelvis can help the dancer develop a sense of how much symmetry their body will allow." Clippinger adds that students with scoliosis should alternate the use of their right and left sides during class exercises and barre work for better balance.

But the most important thing a teacher can do for a student with this condition is to encourage them in every way. “Be sensitive to students with scoliosis," Fatouros says. “Understand that they may not always look like the other students. Check in on a regular basis to make sure she is doing her exercises, and keep her moving and motivated." Fatouros recalls one particular success story: “I once had a student who would do an exercise, and then she would slump on the barre. It wasn't helping her scoliosis." Once she fully dedicated herself, it affected her posture positively. “By junior year, her doctor said the degrees of curvature had lessened," she says. “I saw evidence of a dancer holding herself well, and it helped."

Straighten Up Scoliosis!

Dance professor Karen Clippinger breaks down a simple spine-strengthening exercise from her book Dance Anatomy and Kinesiology for dancers with a 15-degree or less spinal curve. (Dancers with curvatures going in the opposite direction will need to adjust accordingly, and those with greater degree curves should seek medical recommendation first.) Courtesy of Clippinger

Curl-Up with a Twist:

1. Begin by lying on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Curl the torso up vertebra by vertebra until the shoulder blades are off the floor. Then, use hands to curl the torso slightly higher off the ground, emphasizing rounding the spine and pulling the abdominal wall inward toward the spine.

In this position check for symmetry, and if needed, shift your upper rib cage (generally to the left) so that its center is aligned as close as possible with the center of your pelvis. Let go with the hands and hold this position for four counts before lowering to starting position.

2. As strength develops, when letting go with the hands bring the left arm overhead and think of reaching out with the fingertips and lengthening the spine as if curving around a large exercise ball. Hold for four counts before bringing the left arm forward and lowering to the starting position. Perform six repetitions with the left arm going overhead and then four repetitions with the right arm going overhead.

3. As skill improves, rotate the upper torso to the left when the left arm is overhead. Be sure to isolate the rotation to the upper torso and think of keeping the right hip bone back so that the pelvis and lower back are not allowed to rotate. Reverse the pattern when the right arm is overhead.

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Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.

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When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

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Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.


Find a formula that works for your studio

For Melanie Boniszewski, owner of Tonawanda Dance Arts in upstate New York, the answer to profitable summer programming lies in drop-in classes.

"We're in a cold-weather climate, so summer is actually really hard to attract people—everyone wants to be outside, and no one wants to commit to a full season," she says.

Tonawanda Dance Arts offers a children's program in which every class is à la carte: 30-minute, $15 drop-in classes are offered approximately two times a week in the evenings, over six weeks, for different age groups. And two years ago, she created her Stay Strong All Summer Long program for older students, which offers 12 classes throughout the summer and a four-day summer camp. Students don't know what type of class they're attending until they show up. "If you say you're going to do a hip-hop class, you could get 30 kids, but if you do ballet, it could be only 10," she says. "We tell them to bring all of their shoes and be ready for anything."

Start-up costs are minimal—just payroll and advertising (which she starts in April). For older age groups, Boniszewski focuses on bringing in her studio clientele, rather than marketing externally. In the 1- to 6-year-old age group, though, around 50 percent of summer students tend to be new ones—98 percent of whom she's been able to convert to year-round classes.

A group of elementary school aged- girls stands in around a dance studio. A teacher, a young black man, stands in front of the studio, talking to them

An East County Performing Arts Center summer class from several years ago. Photo courtesy ECPAC

East County Performing Arts Center owner Nina Koch knows that themed, weeklong camps are the way to go for younger dancers, as her Brentwood, California students are on a modified year-round academic school calendar, and parents are usually looking for short-term daycare solutions to fill their abbreviated summer break.

Koch keeps her weekly camps light on dance: "When we do our advertising for Frozen Friends camp, for example, it's: 'Come dance, tumble, play games, craft and have fun!'"

Though Koch treats her campers as studio-year enrollment leads, she acknowledges that these weeklong camps naturally function as a way for families who aren't ready for a long-term commitment to still participate in dance. "Those who aren't enrolled for the full season will be put into a sales nurture campaign," she says. "We do see a lot of campers come to subsequent camps, including our one-day camps that we hold once a month throughout our regular season."

Serve your serious dancers

One dilemma studio owners may face: what to do about your most serious dancers, who may be juggling outside intensives with any summer programming that you offer.

Consider making their participation flexible. For Boniszweski's summer program, competitive dancers must take six of the 12 classes offered over a six-week period, as well as the four-day summer camp, which takes place in mid-August. "This past summer, because of COVID, they paid for six but were able to take all 12 if they wanted," she says. "Lots of people took advantage of that."

For Koch, it didn't make sense to require her intensive dancers to participate in summer programming, partly because she earned more revenue catering to younger students and partly because her older students often made outside summer-training plans. "That's how you build a well-rounded dancer—you want them to go off and get experience from teachers you might not be able to bring in," she says.

Another option: Offering private lessons. Your more serious dancers can take advantage of flexible one-on-one training, and you can charge higher fees for individualized instruction. Consider including a financial incentive to get this kind of programming up and running. "Five years ago, we saw that some kids were asking for private lessons, so we created packages: If you bought five lessons, you'd get one for free—to get people in the door," says Boniszewksi. "After two years, once that program took off, we got rid of the discount. People will sign up for as many as 12 private lessons."

A large group of students stretch in a convention-style space with large windows. They follow a teacher at the front of the room in leaning over their right leg for a hamstring stretch

Koch's summer convention experience several years ago. Photo courtesy East County Performing Arts Center

Bring the (big) opportunities to your students

If you do decide to target older, more serious dancers for your summer programming, you may need to inject some dance glamour to compete with fancier outside intensives.

Bring dancers opportunities they wouldn't have as often during the school year. For Boniszewski, that means offering virtual master classes with big-name teachers, like Misha Gabriel and Briar Nolet. For Koch, it's bringing the full convention experience to her students—and opening it up to the community at large. In past years, she's rented her local community center for a weekend-long in-house convention and brought in professional ballet, jazz, musical theater and contemporary guest teachers.

In 2019, the convention was "nicely profitable" while still an affordable $180 per student, and attracted 120 dancers, a mix of her dancers and dancers from other studios. "It was less expensive than going to a big national convention, because parents didn't have to worry about lodging or travel," Koch says. "We wanted it to be financially attainable for families to experience something like this in our sleepy little town."

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