Being diagnosed with diabetes at any age is a shock, but being diagnosed at 18 years old when you’re studying to be prima ballerina in New York City has to be a HUGE shock. That’s what happened to Zippora Karz, who now teaches dance from her home in Los Angeles. This November, at age 44, she’ll be publishing The Sugarless Plum: A Ballerina’s Triumph over Diabetes, her memoirs of diagnosis and time in the New York City Ballet Corp as a newly diagnosed type 1 diabetic. To get a sneak peek at what’s inside, Zippora shares what is was like getting the diagnosis as a promising dancer and how she overcame the doubts and fears we all deal with…
At age 15, I left my home in Los Angeles and moved to New York City to study at the School of American Ballet, the official School of the New York City Ballet. By age 18, I was a full member of the famed NYC Ballet, rehearsing all day and performing every night. In just my second year in the company, I was singled out to dance the leading role in the Nutcracker, the Sugarplum Fairy. The following year I was again singled out to dance a lead in a new ballet. It was an incredibly exciting time for me, but also a very exhausting one. Dancing all day and performing every night, I ignored the strange symptoms I was experiencing in my body.
I thought I was feeling thirsty and hungry, spaced out, urinating frequently, and losing weight because of the intense schedule and my nerves for the big premiere. I didn’t think anything was really wrong. I would have continued to ignore my symptoms had it not been the sores under my arms that threatened my performance, my dancing. With so many different ballets I performed, I wore different costumes made for different bodies which rubbed under my arms. The sores eventually became infected and antibiotics did not heal them. It was terribly painful to lift my arms, which ballerinas do a lot, not to mention how unattractive it was. I was often dizzy and I found it hard to feel my extremities, particularly my toes, when I danced.
My diagnosis was informal and cold, with little information besides all the horrific things that would happen to my body in the future. I sat in that office and was handed pamphlet after pamphlet about diabetes and its terrifying complications. From heart disease and stroke, to blindness, kidney failure and loss of limbs. All I could think about was getting back to the theater. I left the office confused and annoyed. Back at the theatre, I convinced myself the blood work was off because of my exhaustion or a lab error. I was a 21-year-old aspiring ballerina with the New York City Ballet. A disease people give money to for charity had nothing to do with me.
I was clearly in denial, fueled by the fact that because of my age, doctors assumed I was type 2 and I was put on oral medication. Even though I didn’t want to accept it, type 2 diabetes meant I could reverse it. With my dancers discipline, I set out to perfectly control everything I ate while exercising all day. This actually worked for a time; unbeknownst to me I was still in the honeymoon phase of type 1 diabetes. Everything came crashing down when the honeymoon phase ended. No matter how perfect I was, I could not keep my sugars down. Going on insulin felt like the ultimate failure. I hated my body for its inadequacies. I felt hopeless at the thought of how I would juggle shots of insulin with my performance schedule. The beginning was extremely difficult as I tried to maintain tight control while performing. I was afraid of the long-term complications, inexperienced with how much insulin to take at any given time before dancing, and unaware of the immediate danger of lows. Needless to say I had many harrowing experiences on stage.
I should have discussed my difficulties with my doctor, but instead found a new one. The new doctor also thought I had type 2 diabetes and took me off insulin. He even told me to stop using my meter. He thought the lows on stage were far more dangerous than letting my sugars go up a bit. He thought I was being obsessive. Could he have been right?
It’s hard for me to understand how I convinced myself it was okay to let my blood sugars go high. I was still hoping the whole thing would go away or would reverse itself. I was listening to my doctor so I was clearly still in denial, happy to put the meter away and stop my shots. It didn’t take long for my original symptoms to return. My denial was so great, and my conviction to never go back to shots of insulin, I never thought to check my blood sugar. I think dancing all day and night, and eating as perfectly as I could, is how I survived with no insulin for almost a year. But I looked and felt terrible. Even though the company still let me dance in the corp de ballet every night, there were no leading roles coming my way. When I finally “woke up” and checked my blood sugar levels, the meter would not go that high. It was time to end my denial, take responsibility for my body, and accept my insulin-dependent diabetes.
I started a balanced insulin program and began looking and feeling better. Ironically, as I learned how to perform every night without experiencing extreme lows, I also psychologically started to question the reality of my situation.
Was this a suitable lifestyle for a person with type 1 diabetes? Maybe I was putting too much pressure on myself. I was exhausted from all the ups and downs with my physiology and from trying so hard to prove I was the same promising dancer I once was. I was not the same. Maybe it was time for me to admit I had accomplished a lot, but it was time to find a more suitable lifestyle for an insulin-dependent diabetic.
As much as I wanted to quit dancing, I just could not let myself do it. When I listened to the small voice in my heart, I admitted to myself that if I quit, I would be using diabetes as an excuse. The truth is I was more tired about wishing I could be the dancer I once was, alive and joyful, than I was tired of diabetes. I told myself I hadn’t yet danced on the right insulin regime for long enough and didn’t know what was possible. I did not want to look back with regret. I knew I would always wonder, so I had to stay and keep trying.
Nine years after I joined the company (six years after my diagnosis), I was promoted to Soloist Ballerina of the New York City Ballet. I performed with the company another 7 years, 16 years total with the company and 13 with diabetes. I loved every performance and am grateful for every moment I had on stage. Today I am a teacher and I stage George Balanchine ballets all over the world. Another passion of mine is to motivate people to take care of themselves. Through my story I hope to motivate others to take care of their bodies, their health, and also follow their dreams.
We all have a story. We all experience obstacles that affect our motivation and ability to take the best care possible. I hope each one of us can find a passion, and let that motivate us to follow our hearts. Know that anything is possible with diabetes, but it takes discipline, education, and perseverance. My advice to others who may be feeling like giving up is to dig deep inside and ask if you are doing everything you can to take care of yourself physically and emotionally. Then give it time. We can’t always see the light at the end of the tunnel, even though it is there, brighter than we can imagine. If, in the end, it is just too much, know that you did the best you could. I believe our best is good enough!
Thank you, thank you, Zippora. For once I am speechless.