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Juilliard's Taryn Kaschock Russell Shares What It's Like to Be a Dancer With Scoliosis

Photo by Giuliano Correia, courtesy of Marcus John and #IAmStraightForward

After having been diagnosed with scoliosis at the age of 11, Taryn Kaschock Russell endured years of unconventional treatment in order to continue dancing. Through emotional and physical turmoil, and with the help of her parents, she was been able to live her dream of becoming a professional dancer for the Joffrey Ballet (1995–2002) and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago (2002–2007). Today, she is working and the associate director at The Juilliard School with a 66-degree curvature of her spine.

DT caught up with Russell to learn more about her inspiring story.


Dance Teacher: What are the challenges dancers with scoliosis face?

Taryn Kaschock Russell: There are a number of challenges that go along with your internal architecture not matching any specific line you're supposed to be able to make in dance. Pretty much nothing in ballet class works with how my back and body is. It took creativity and imagination to try to figure out how to execute lines and movement to make them look similar to what was being asked of me. It made me look at what movement does for ballet rather than just looking at a position and trying to emulate it.

DT: Can you give us an example of this?

TKR: I don't have a straight spine. Not having a straight spine means my body curves, so if I don't use any muscles, my collar bones are on a diagonal. I had to start with just simply standing up. I had to make my collar bones equal and parallel to the floor through muscle control.

I cannot push things further into my own body to make them fit, but what I can do is imagine my spine or skeleton is moving into something else larger than me. If my body is on a curve, I can float myself into space and get larger so I have more area to work with. By using that as a baseline to start with, I was able to fill in gaps with my musculature.

DT: How has scoliosis impacted the way you teach?

TKR: I've come to realize that if I am dealing with this, someone else is dealing with something that's hard for them, too. They might not like their body because they aren't thin or don't like their feet. I've learned that we all have things we perceive as imperfections. It equalizes the playing field. Now, as a teacher, I'm willing to look at dancers for who they are and see how I can help them progress. We are all individuals, and each of us comes with different stories.

When I hear someone say they can't do something, I say, "Look at me! You have to love and embrace your differences. Once I embraced my internal architecture, things started becoming easier for me. You should believe you have something to contribute.

DT: What role did scoliosis play in your training?

TKR: It played a huge role. Mostly, it made me really determined.

I got diagnosed at a time when insurance dropped anything that was cutting-edge, and there were only a few successful treatment options available. I was dancing six days a week and was already recognized as someone who had a lot of talent.

At that first doctor's appointment, I was told I wouldn't be able to dance the way I used to. When we walked out, I had tears in my eyes. My mother looked at me and said, "Do you want to dance?" I said yes, and that was that. We went to doctors all over the country for options that might work, and eventually we found a doctor willing to do some experimental treatments.

I decided nothing was going to keep me from being a professional dancer. I kept training as much as I possibly could. I graduated high school in three years and ended up at the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago. When I signed that first contract, I took the biggest sigh of relief. After all the risks my parents took, I got to prove they did it for a reason. I made it. It is a gift that I get to dance. I feel so lucky.

DT: You were featured in the #IAmStraightForward Campaign and Exhibition earlier this month. What does this mean to you?

TKR: This campaign is putting faces, bodies and stories to a condition that isn't discussed very often. They're giving people a space to talk about their challenges and the impact this condition has on self-image. When you hear the word deformity, it becomes a label that you live with. The entire experience remains raw forever. It feels like something we are hiding. This exhibition is beautiful because it's cathartic. Scoliosis is not something to hide. It is something to be proud of. We should support that and support each other.

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Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

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"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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Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

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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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