Dancing with Scoliosis

Meet Melanie Christine. A 17-year-old dancer from Ohio whose dancing life was drastically changed when she realized her spine was severely curved. Melanie's Scoliosis eventually led to surgery, and when she woke up from surgery her entire spine was fused and she had 2 rods and 30 screws holding her spine into place. She began the long, arduous journey of re-training her body to move.

Today, Melanie serves as an inspiration for other dancers. "I want to devote my life to helping other people because I can relate to what it is like to be pulled down and then have to rise up again," Melanie says.

Even through all of the physical pain of surgery and the emotional pain of being moved to "beginner" level dance classes post-surgery, Melanie believes in one truth without doubt: "If dance is in your heart, you will always find a way."

Photo from Melanie of her spine pre-surgery

Tell us a little about your dance story. What got you into dance?

As a child I was painfully shy so my mom put me in dance at the age of 4 to help my shyness and immediately I loved it! As I got older I only became more in love with the beautiful art of dance, I dreamed of becoming a professional dancer! Dance helped me become the person I am today and made me a more confident person. It allowed me to get all of my feelings out and when I was on stage I was no longer shy. I shined!

Photo: Melanie stretching

How old were you when you realized something wasn't "right" about your posture?

At a routine physical when I was only 8 years old we found out that I had a severe case of scoliosis. It was already at a 48 degree curve and progressing. I was very frightened and had no clue what was going on. I went to an orthopedic surgeon and he told me I needed a back brace to help prevent the growth of the curve.

We were trying very hard to avoid surgery since we knew how life changing and dangerous it can be. The back brace was so hard to get use to at first but I eventually grew attached to it. I had many doctor appointments from that day on and hospital visits to make sure everything was OK with my back. I developed a huge fear of needles and hospitals which only made things harder.

What emotions did you go through?

I continued to dance through the back pain of the curve and at times I even forgot I had scoliosis. When I became a bit older, at the age of 9-10 years old, I began to hate how twisted my body was and the big hump on my back. Also the uneven hips and shoulders would start to get to me. I was being bullied at this time which only made it harder to handle.

Photo: Melanie wearing her brace

What effects did this have on you?

I developed an eating disorder at the age of 9 and it became quite severe. I dropped weight quickly thinking that it would make my scoliosis less noticeable. When I was 11, I started my recovery from the eating disorder and became confident again and able to dance without feeling faint. I remember dance teachers trying to push down my rib hump and make me stand up straighter but I just couldn’t. I did have a great amount of flexibility though! I was determined to always keep dancing through it all.

How did surgery come about?

When I turned 14 I went to my surgeon again and this time it was life changing. On October 16, 2010, I was told I needed Scoliosis surgery because my curve was now 68 degrees on the top and a 58 degree curve on the bottom. I was scared because of the fear of not knowing what to expect. I knew that this surgery was going to change my life and it did! I spent a majority of the time with my family leading up to the surgery to try and relieve my severe anxiety. I got a tour of the hospital, and the most amazing child-life specialist to help me through this difficult time. Even though I was frightened, I didn’t let it steal my joy! I wanted to stay strong no matter what because I knew that I could do this with my faith, friends and family! Positivity is what helped me so much through the pre and post-surgery.

Going into the surgery knowing that I wouldn’t be fully recovered for a whole year was very hard to grasp because I have always danced my way through life and now I couldn’t.

I knew this was for the best because of the increased pain and the curve making it harder to breathe and do physical activity.

Snapshot 8 (2-25-2011 11-54 AM)
Photo: Melanie post-surgery, still staying positive.

What was it like waking up with a different, new-improved back?

During recovery it was a long journey but it also was an incredible life lesson. I now had to work so much harder for what I wanted than I ever had to before.

I woke up had 2 rods and 30 screws in my back! I had to start from the beginning again learning new ways to move with my new body.

I would be lying if I said it was easy because there have been so many ups and downs, but I always kept my head up. After the surgery I fell into a depression for a while because I was unable to do what I love, but I still stayed positive knowing that this process I was experiencing was all normal. I knew I could get through it all. I was dealing with a relapse of the eating disorder during the recovery process of surgery which made it a bit difficult, but even though I was going through this really hard time I just kept telling myself this will pass and I will recover! I had so much support and love so I kept pushing through.

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Photo: Melanie's back post-surgery (and a scar which she's proud of!)

What was it like getting back into dancing post-surgery?

At 6 months, I came back to dance. It was very hard at first because I was very stiff and didn’t know how to move with this new body. I actually had my whole entire spine fused because of how severe it was so I have very little movement in my actual back and it is impossible to arch my back or bend it ever again. I actually looked at this as a positive thing, now I had perfect posture.

There were days where it was hard to deal with the fact I couldn’t do things like other people but I wouldn't let that stop me.

I am me and they are them and there is no comparison. I just kept reaching towards my goals.

Soon, I became super flexible again (of course not my back but everywhere else). I actually began doing things I couldn’t even do before my surgery and that encouraged me to keep going.

Photo: Melanie post-surgery dancing

I decided I would perfect the things I could do instead of worrying about all the things I can’t do.

I began to learn how to give the illusion that I was bending my back so that I could do the moves just differently. I began homeschooling and this gave me more time to work on my dancing. I got comments saying, “Just give up, just stop. You suck." And I didn’t believe them! I knew that I could do this! The farther I got in my recovery the more I learned how to move my new body. Dance was such an amazing release for me and made me so much more confident.

Photo: Melanie's new back

What are your biggest challenges in dance and how do you overcome them?

I struggle with anything that involves arching the back but I come to a point where I realize there are just some things that I can’t do, and I am okay with that because look at all the things I can do. Everything I am able to do, I make it the best I can. I always remember to count my blessings and the ability to dance again!

Photo: Melanie, always smiling

What have you learned - as a person - going through this experience?

With all of these battles I have fought, it has made me the person I am today. People have always asked me: "If you could go back, would you take away your struggle of scoliosis and eating disorders?" My answer will be forever, “no." I wont take any of these struggles back because they have made me who I am today. They have made me stronger and a better person! I have learned so much through this 8-year journey of scoliosis and eating disorders.

I learned how to be positive even when it doesn’t seem possible. I have learned how to love myself. I have learned to never take life or dance for granted. I have learned to enjoy every little victory in life; to not listen to what others say and what they think of me; to always keep my faith even in the darkest of times.

If it weren’t for what I have been through, I wouldn’t be this passionate about helping other people through scoliosis and eating disorders, all with the power of dance!

How do you want to use dance in your future?

My goal is to use dance to help people recover from scoliosis, eating disorders and so much more. Dance is one of the greatest blessings I have been given and I want to use it to help others. I want to show others that you can overcome it all and reach your happiest point! You can RECOVER! I want every person to see themselves as beautiful, and worth it! Your life has a purpose and meaning and you can get through whatever you might be going through. I want to show people how I went from an eating disorder and scoliosis surgery to loving myself and being confident.

What advice do you have for young dancers going through something similar?

Always stay positive and don’t listen to what others say. You are beautiful and you are an incredible dancer for what you have been through! You are you and don’t ever compare yourself to anyone else. Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses and that makes us who we are! Many people don’t understand - because they haven’t been through it - but let me just say you are a survivor and a fighter. What others say doesn’t define your worth, and you are stronger than titanium! You can overcome this battle and be the best dancer you can be. Never give up on this journey and always remember to just smile. A smile can make a happy spirit!

What is the best advice you've received from a dance teacher?

One of the best advices I got from my dance teacher was “no dancer is perfect, we all have room for improvement, and no one is here to judge you. We are to help you. Dance with passion and don’t worry so much about getting it perfect. Make it big even if you mess up.” I actually think I am a better dance now than ever before because I now have to work harder for this dream of mine.

Do you have a life motto?

"You are not what you have been through, you are what you have overcome.”

Note from Ballet Shoes & Bobby Pins:

According to the Scoliosis Research Society: Eighty-five percent of people with scoliosis have the "idiopathic" type. "Idiopathic" means "no known cause." However, the term is not quite accurate, as we actually know quite a bit about the cause and natural history of idiopathic scoliosis. Idiopathic scoliosis frequently runs in families and there is a growing body of evidence that genetics plays a major role.


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