Dancing Ballerina with Type 1 Diabetes

December 5th, 2011  |  Published in Wellness & Diabetes

 Originally from Calgary Alberta, Canada,  Catherine Vancak started ballet when she was just 4 years old. Today, at 24, she’s been studying dancing for 20 years. She tried other sports and activities along the way, like gymnastics, soccer, figure skating, singing and acting, but ballet was the one that always stuck.In high school, Catherine worked her way up through the School of Alberta Ballet, later joining their university program that was in conjunction with the University of Calgary.

After her program was cancelled, she auditioned for the University of Alabama’s dance program and was accepted.  She spent two and a half very happy years there perfecting her art, gathering performance experience, and of course, learning about all the interesting American traditions like Alabama Football!  

(As a side note, she says, “I absolutely adore Alabama football.  It’s something we don’t go crazy over in Canada so it’s something fun and novel to me, and yes, I have yelled at the television before.”)

After graduating, Catherine secured a trainee position at the Montgomery Ballet.  During her experience there, she realized that classical ballet wasn’t for her, and she was given the opportunity to move to Birmingham and dance with the Arova Contemporary Ballet company.  Today, Catherine is a soloist at Arova and she couldn’t be happier! But we need more details!

GINGER: What’s your diabetes diagnosis story?
CATHERINE:Diabetes started to show up right as I was about to graduate from university.  I was 23.  I was extremely thirsty and couldn’t figure out why my fellow dancers could get through an hour rehearsal and I was always stopping for bathroom breaks.  My drink of choice was gatorade and I think I may have increased their sales for December considering how much I was drinking.  I also was exhausted and all my strength and dance technique melted away.  It felt like the worst flu I had ever had and that’s what I thought it was at first.My Christmas vacation was a strange experience.  I visited Canada and my Canadian doctor gave me some supplies to start testing but didn’t have enough time to run me through the system to get properly diagnosed and fixed up.  It was terrifying reading the numbers and not having the insulin or education on how to fix it.  After all the Christmas eating I hadn’t gained an ounce.  As soon as I returned to the states,

I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes started using insulin and I began feeling better, really better.
The diagnosis was very frightening but at least I had a way to stop feeling sick.  I was given the power to make myself healthy again as opposed to free floating, feeling sicker and not knowing what to do about it.
After a few months I started on the Omnipod and this fall I started using a Dexcom as well.  I didn’t mind the shots but I happen to be a bit of a “Diabetes Squirrel”.  Someone who absolutely loves shiny new diabetes technology that is supposed to make my life easier.  Sometimes it’s not always easier.  I get cannula kinks 80% of the time with my Omnipod among other difficulties so I am a weeks away from switching to an Animas pump.  You know what the say, breaking up is hard to do.

GINGER: Did you think diabetes was going to end your dancing career?
CATHERINE:  After my diagnosis every nurse and doctor who I came across immediately told me that diabetes should never get in the way of anything I wanted to do.  So I thought that I had nothing to fear and besides a few needles and blood sugar checks things would return to normal, but my normal had forever been changed.  It wasn’t as easy as I originally thought and once that hit me I wondered if this was the right career for me.  I had lost most of my strength prior to being diagnosed and starting up a new job in a tough classical ballet company gave me injuries immediately.  I overcame a few small ones but after a bad low one day I fell and sprained my ankle badly.  This sprain never healed and after 6 months of pain I had surgery while I was visiting New York to dance.  Obviously I didn’t get much dancing in but a new ankle was well worth it.

During those frustrating times when my dancing had been taken away from me I cursed diabetes for it.  I would go through phases when I thought that if I just didn’t think about it, it’ll disappear.  The diabetes had destroyed so much of me that I didn’t know if I was able to return to performance shape, but I had to try.  Once I had healed from my surgery and after undergoing months of rigorous therapy, I returned to ballet stronger than I ever had been.  I couldn’t believe that I could do it but I did.  I was 100% confident that diabetes would not take ballet away from me.  I proved to myself that I could come back after it all.

GINGER: The training for ballet is rigorous! What is your training like?

CATHERINE: Each ballet dancer will have a different training regimen because no two people are alike.  We try to focus on what challenges us so that we can present ourselves to choreographers as the whole package and be able to perform many different types of movement.  I always have been a big fan of Pilates and Zena Rommett’s floor barre technique for correcting alignment and improving posture.  It always helps put “everything in the right place” so that when I am in ballet class I can work on expression.  Cardio training is very important too.  Running is my favorite as I can listen to music and release any stress I had built up over the day.  I don’t run very fast but it’s a goal of mine not to be the slowest runner on the track.  Of course ballet class is the gold standard as well as other types of dance like modern or arial dance.  A dance class is a combination of progressive exercises that include balance, strength, turns and jumps.  I try to get in an equal amount of each type of exercise as if you do too much of one type then you can get injured in another.  Cross training is very important.

GINGER: Was it challenging and frustrating to balance your blood sugars during training at first?
CATHERINE: It was a big challenge to get my blood sugars once I was training again.  It took me about three months once I was fully dancing again to figure out a good balance.  My main goal was to reduce the amount of lows I had from exercise.  I played with my temporary basal rates on my pump constantly till I found something that worked.  Even right now I still tweak it.  I would also reduce my pre-training meal boluses to reduce the lows but if I didn’t time it just right I would end up with a high and then a crashing low after my exercise.  I found it very frustrating to have to eat more glucose after I had a great ballet class.  I try to make a habit of treating my lows like I would treat with insulin, very carefully.  I only use glucose tablets so I can measure how much I need and try to resist emptying the whole pantry into my mouth.  Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t but I try not to beat myself up about it.  I hate lows in ballet class because it makes it near impossible to balance and by the time you feel back in the land of the living class is over!
I do wear a Dexcom in class and that has helped warn me of potential highs and lows before they turn into a disaster.  I do always worry when we start working on a new piece because I need to be two steps ahead and make sure my Dexcom and pump site are in places where my partners won’t rip them out.  It’s been a bit of a struggle to integrate the pump and Dexcom.  For a while I thought I couldn’t dance with them but I decided to get crafty and make them fit and they do!  I use a SPI-belt and all sorts of clips and pouches to keep things secure.

GINGER: What is a typical diabetes-management day like for you amongst ballet?
CATHERINE:During my rehearsal period I try to aim for consistency.  Our rehearsals can sometimes change times or dates and I need to be flexible with that.  A typical day would include waking up, checking my blood sugar and bolusing for my breakfast.  I eat a fair amount so I like to make sure I have a mix of carbohydrates, proteins and fats at each meal.  Otherwise I am starving an hour later.  After breakfast I will go and start my workouts for the day.Usually it is a three or four part day.  For example I may do a floor barre class, then move to 90 minutes of conditioning exercises, two hours of stretching and then a 90 minute ballet class and a rehearsal lasting two to four hours.  Other days I will do a 75 minute spin class, then physical therapy and swimming.  In between each part of my day I make sure I check my blood sugar, bolus and eat accordingly.  Most days I like to pack lunches and snacks and have the carb counts already to go on note cards.  It is a very exhausting schedule so I make sure I get to bed at a decent hour.
Pre-performance diabetes management is a little different as there are the added stresses of performing present.  Usually the workouts are cut in half as to not tire the dancers out.  Not working out as much makes my blood sugar sit about 20mg/dl higher than what it normally is so I need to adjust for that.  I am always so surprised to see how my blood sugar behaves when I take a day off from activity.  It’s not always pretty.  I always make sure I pack snacks for backstage so that if they need to keep us longer than expected then I am prepared.  I do my daily ballet class on the stage and do what stretches or exercises I need on my own.  Then I go backstage to put on my makeup and have my little packed dinner.  My blood sugar will never go below 120mg/dl before I go onstage and that is just fine because as soon as I am finished with my piece I’ll check my blood sugar and it will be 75mg/dl.  I guess my adrenaline doesn’t last for long!

GINGER: What are some of the biggest challenges of being a ballerina with diabetes?
CATHERINE: Diabetes was a huge hurtle for me to overcome.  I have had days when I all I wanted to do was sit and cry.  I wanted to impress choreographers and would then have a high or low and fail at dancing the way they wanted.  It was difficult adjusting to this new normal.  Everything that had worked for me in the past in regards to losing weight, sleeping, eating, stress was now obsolete.  I had to find my own new path and I didn’t know if I had the strength to rebuild from the ground up.

GINGER: Would you say diabetes has brought positive things to you life?
CATHERINE: Diabetes taught me the tenacity that is required for a tough career in dance.  To never give up and if something isn’t working trying a different way.  If I fall out of a turn, I try to go into that turn using a different muscle.  Same thing with my diabetes management.  If I have a problem I will experiment with something else.  I am lucky to have dance on my team for my diabetes management.  The exercise I get from dance naturally helps my blood sugars but I am also very careful so that my blood sugars don’t get in the way of my dancing.  It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it.
Diabetes has enriched my life through the wonderful experiences I have had while meeting other thriving PWD’s.  We are all faced with a challenge.  We can hide from it or we can own it.  I decided to own it, to make it mine.  My dad would always applaud me when I would tell him I wore my diabetes t-shirt to the mall or show someone my pump.  I even went as far as pulling down my pants to show a curious woman in Pilates class my Dexcom sensor.  Yes, I went there.  After all, I am the one on the front lines answering questions from interested non-D folk.  Diabetes got rid of any shyness that I had in the past.  Then again, I don’t think I was ever too shy to begin with!


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