Bent But Never Broken: The Paige Fraser Story
Famous American dancer and choreographer Martha Graham once said: "Great dancers are great because of their passion."
These words can be applied to American dancer Paige Fraser. Through pure passion and determination, Fraser pirouetted her way beyond the barre and into the big leagues to become one of the most sought-after dancers in Chicago.
Born and raised in Bronx, New York, by Jamaican parents, Fraser started dancing at the age of four. When her mother realised she loved dancing to music in the car and in the house, she enrolled her at the Ballet Atlantic Academy in New York, where she played the first black 'Clara' in their production of The Nutcracker. As she got older, Fraser attended many summer intensives on scholarship, including at the American Ballet Theatre and Dance Theatre of Harlem.
DIAGNOSED WITH SCOLIOSIS
All seemed to be going well for Fraser as she began her preteen years as an upcoming prima ballerina. But what happened next would change her life forever. Fraser was diagnosed with scoliosis - an abnormal curvature of the spine.
"I was diagnosed when I was 13 years old. I had just begun high school at the prestigious Professional Performing Arts High School in NYC, for dance," Fraser told Outlook.
"I remember going to the doctor for a regular physical and them telling me to roll down and up. The doctor noticed I had a curvature in my spine and sent me to see the orthopaedic surgeon for further X-rays. Following the X-rays, they told me that I would eventually need surgery and that it would only get worse over the next few years of my life as I began to develop."
Any child at that age would be terrified to hear this. The news was even worse for a dancer.
"I was very afraid hearing the word 'surgery'," Fraser said. "My dream was to be a professional dancer and I knew the surgery consisted of putting rods into my spine to help stabilise and straighten it. I knew if I got the surgery I would have to stop dancing."
Scoliosis affects range of motion and balance. Due to the curvature of the spine, the stronger side of a person's back compensates to support the other. "Every day my body felt different," Fraser revealed. "I had to learn how to feel and visualise my spine. It took a lot of internal and physical work. Fortunately, I do not have pain."
Her parents became her primary source of support. "I am so thankful for them, because my diagnosis happened at a time when I was too young to really make any real adult decisions."
Fraser's parents knew that dancing professionally was her lifelong dream, and they wanted to help make it a reality. Surgery therefore was just not an option for their daughter. Through online research, her mother found a chiropractor who helped her with adjusting her spine and keeping it aligned.
Throughout high school, Fraser wore a back brace to help with her posture. "Of course, wearing this in high school was very embarrassing, but all my friends made me feel comfortable about it and I found cute, loose shirts to hide it," she said.
NO CURBING HER
Despite her diagnosis, Fraser was determined to answer her calling. In high school, she got further encouragement and support from her dance teacher who also had scoliosis. "My teacher was able to guide me through certain challenges. I basically had to retrain my body. I used the diagnosis as a way to motivate me to push on and prove that you can dance with the condition."
Fraser can honestly say she is living her dream, despite her challenge.
The biggest jetÈ Fraser has taken in her lifetime was while performing for the Super Bowl earlier this year in a commercial for the Intel Corporation.
She was afforded the opportunity when casting directors from Los Angeles contacted her director, seeking a dancer with a story of adversity.
Fraser was immediately selected. "I cried on the phone. It was so surreal. It really is the highlight of my professional career thus far. I was able to showcase the beauty of breaking through my challenges with strength. It was really quite an amazing experience."
Fraser's mother, Alexia, told Outlook: "As Jamaicans and proud parents, my husband and I are extremely delighted by Paige. She has lived up to our expectations and hers, as well. She is truly an inspiration to all her peers."
According to Fraser, persons with scoliosis should realise that it is not a death sentence.
Her advice to other dancers: "I would honestly tell them to go after all their dreams. Many times, we do not get what we want when we want it, but we must have faith and continue to do the work. When we are ready for things, they will come at the right time."
She continued: "I am always growing as a dancer. It is nice every once in a while to see how far I have come, despite several challenges and disappointments. Dance is very therapeutic and healing for me and I dance because I love it. Every day when I am in the studio or on stage, my purpose becomes clearer. The setbacks and limitations in my life only help me to push forward. I am very blessed to do what I love."
Said her mother: "We know that her scoliosis does not define her. She is completely dedicated to continue sharing her story with the world. As a dancer with scoliosis, she has managed to overcome all adversities."
Fraser, who also dabbles in modelling, has never visited her parents' homeland. She said she hopes to visit Jamaica to teach dance workshops or even perform someday.