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Dancing through diabetes
Ballet dancer, Zippora Karz, meets success despite her diabetes

The New York City Ballet soloist, Zippora Karz, describes her successful fight to keep diabetes from destroying her artistry and her career.

I became an apprentice at New York City Ballet in the fall of 1983, shortly after the death of George Balanchine. By the following year I was a member of the corps de ballet. To my incredible surprise, ballet master in chief Peter Martins gave me the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker in only my second year with the company. The following year I was featured in his new ballet, Les Petit Riens. These roles came in addition to many wonderful corps and demisoloist roles that I was regularly performing during our fourteen-week winter season. It was an extremely exciting time for me, and yet a very hard one. Strange things had begun to happen to my body.

First, there were sores that would not heal under my arms, where the costumes rubbed. As the premiere of Riens approached, my body was feeling more and more foreign to me. I was often dizzy, and I was finding it hard to feel my extremities, particularly my toes, when I danced. I could sense Peter's growing frustration with me as I kept falling off pointe for no apparent reason. Increasingly frustrated, I was angry at my body for falling apart at this most important point in my career. In addition to the sores, I was losing weight, feeling thirsty and hungry all the time, feeling spaced out, and urinating frequently. It didn't occur to me that anything was really wrong. Rather, I thought I was extremely tired, maybe from pushing too hard. Then, in the midst of a six-hour rehearsal day, with a performance that evening, I was called to my doctor's office.

I had juvenile diabetes, a disease that would radically change my daily life and the course of my dancing career. At first I wanted to deny what I had been told. I thought that there must be some mistake; the lab had made an error; this condition was just a passing phase. My doctor was giving me pamphlet after pamphlet about diabetes and its terrifying complications. I knew nothing about diabetes or what it would mean to me. All I could think about was that I had to get back to the theater and prepare for that evening's performance.

When I returned I didn't tell anybody what I'd found out. I was panicked about the disease's effect on my dancing. I knew how important it was to look strong and consistent if I wanted to keep getting lead roles. Peter had already told me that the main thing I must do was strengthen my technique. So I feared looking weak. I needed to hide what was happening to me.

There are two types of diabetes, I learned from those pamphlets: juvenile and adult-onset. They are actually very different diseases.

The type I have, juvenile diabetes, or Type I, accounts for only 5 to 10 percent of diabetics. It is believed to be an autoimmune reaction in which the beta cells of the pancreas are destroyed, leaving the body unable to make insulin, a hormone. Insulin's job is to open these cells much as a key opens a door. This way the cell can receive its nourishment from the food that we eat, and the cell can work properly. Without insulin, the food, now in the form of sugar, or glucose, remains in the bloodstream (hence the term, "high blood sugar"), and the entire body suffers.

Adult-onset, or Type II, diabetes also leads to high blood sugar, but not because such diabetics lack insulin. In fact, they have plenty of it. However, what they do have is not being properly utilized. Both types of diabetics must concentrate on getting blood-sugar levels down and getting nourishment to the cells. You see, people don't die from diabetes; they die from complications that develop after years of high blood sugar. Diabetes is the leading cause of blindness and kidney failure; it can cause nerve damage that requires amputation, and it greatly raises the risk of heart disease and stroke.

Eventually I did tell the company, but I have never let them see what I've had to go through to stay in performing shape. Educating myself about the disease and how to live and dance with it became my obsession. I needed to learn about insulin injections, monitoring blood-sugar levels, and exploring different diets. Since diet has such a profound effect on insulin levels, I experimented with many different ones to find how each affected my insulin dose. I tried macrobiotics, an ayurvedic diet, Chinese herbs, and vitamin therapies, along with diets involving high protein, high fat, juices, and raw food, among others. And while I have never adhered to any one diet for very long, I have learned much from each. My main problem has not been finding the discipline to follow my new regimen; it's been finding the best regimen to follow--a search that continues to this day.

The hardest thing for me about taking insulin shots has not been the needles or the occasional pain but the inconsistency of my reactions to the shots. Exercise increases insulin sensitivity, which is good, but because I exercise a great deal, I am at constant risk of my insulin overworking and throwing me into an attack of low-blood sugar--a very risky condition. You are in danger of passing out or going into insulin shock or suffering brain damage.
Source: Dance Magazine - Sept 1998 por Zippora Karz
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