For One Dancer, Ballet Takes Center Stage in the Face of Dystonia

When I was in my 20s and 30s, I performed in a lot of musical theater performances— “Music Man,” “Big River,” “Carousel,” “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.” I was lucky, there were a number of local theater groups where I lived. I had my choice of where to go, depending on the show—and of course, my audition. After each rehearsal, I would be sweaty, sore, and exhausted but always in a good way. Dance rehearsals could be grueling for those of us not professionally trained, but finally nailing that one elusive dance combination—after weeks of tripping over my own feet—was incredibly rewarding.

I understand why Suzie Birchwood is determined to keep on dancing, to keep pushing herself and everyone around her, even through her generalized dystonia.
Dystonia is made up of a group of movement disorders that may show up in a number of different ways.

General dystonia is the rarest form, usually appearing in late childhood or early teen years. Usually, the condition is present in an arm or leg and then is “generalized” to other parts of the body. Involuntary spasms may happen in a foot or leg and then include other limbs. Although there is no known cure, there are a number of treatments to help reduce the impact of the symptoms.

But it’s the discipline of pushing through the discomfort, pain, and exhaustion that propelled Birchwood to continue to pursue her love of the dance. When you consider the training, discipline, and control required to perform any dance move—she stands out as an inspiration to professionals, and weekend warriors (hacks) like me.

According to a release issued by A Younger Theater, understanding there was a real chance she could die from her condition, this classically trained ballet dancer pushed herself even harder to make a difference in the dance community. She began dancing and touring professionally again. She found a dance partner who, after being told about her condition, promptly ignored her limitations and lifted her to new heights—literally. She has also become a strong advocate for dancers with disabilities to be included in high-profile dance companies and is working on a curriculum for disabled ballet dancers.

As a performer, we all look for where our next inspiration comes from. We’re focused on what makes us enter from stage right or break into a song and dance in the middle of dialogue. As Birchwood works through her condition, she has taken inspiration from her very personal struggles with a disease that could have ended her career. She has performed two solo dance selections that explore her relationship with her disease—her frustrations, anger, and the newest, promising developments from within the scientific communities.

The heart of a performer is always fashioned by “the show must be on” no matter the difficulty, pain, or distraction. For Birchwood, she has become an inspiration to dancers (and hacks) through her fortitude and desire to never give up.

To read more about her performance art, click here.

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