Zippora Karz is a former soloist ballerina with the New York City Ballet where she performed from 1983 through 1999. She was featured in a variety of roles choreographed by George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins (The Sugar Plum Fairy in the Nutcracker being one of her favorites) as well as works choreographed for her by such choreographers as Peter Martins and Lynne Taylor Corbett. Diagnosed with juvenile diabetes in 1987, just as she was being featured in solo roles, she found a way to continue to live her dream despite her illness. She now serves as a teacher and repetiteur for the George Balanchine Trust, rehearsing and staging Balanchine’s choreography for a host of national and international dance companies. She is also a diabetes spokesperson and educator who regularly addresses major diabetes conferences and organizations worldwide. In addition to her memoir, The Sugarless Plum, published in 2009, Zippora writes a regular column for the Huffington Post. She lives in Los Angeles, California.
Which tools have been the most helpful during your most challenging moments?
I have always been passionate about health, physically and emotionally, long before I was diagnosed with diabetes. So when I was diagnosed I set out to learn everything I could about how to take care of my body. But equally important was learning to accept the things I could not control, as my life took an unexpected turn and I felt my dreams slipping away. It was a very long process, one I am still on, desiring to fulfill my personal potential, but having to redefine what that potential might encompass. For example, my potential as a ballerina before diabetes was different than my potential after my diagnosis. I had to learn to let go of the perfectionist voice in my head and heart that wanted to be the best I could be as I was before my diabetes, even though everything was now different. My new best would have to be good enough.
Describe the happiest moment(s) of your dance career.
I’m not one to get ecstatic over certain experiences. A sense of peace came about when I accepted my situation and found myself able to maintain my life as a soloist with NYCB, and as an insulin dependent diabetic.
But I will say that those youthful “happy” moments, if I looked for them, I would have to be before I joined the company, my school years at SAB (official school of NYCB). George Balanchine was still alive, as were many of the great teachers on faculty, like Stanley Williams, Suki Schorer (still there today) and Alexandra Danilova. Every day, in class, I felt inspired. The future held unlimited possibilities. It was a magical time in the ballet world. As that generation of greatness passed away, I felt personally less inspired.
How has your background as a dancer helped you with the work you are doing today?
The life of a dancer is full of discipline and rewards for hours of practice and focus. Dance teaches us that it is the process that is important. That the transition from one step to the next, not just how high you jump or how many turns you do are important. And so in life, it is the moments in between, not just the big events that hold great meaning.
How did you find the strength and willpower to continue dancing while you were struggling with diabetes?
My struggle was for many years. In part denial fueled my strength, and in part my passion for dance kept me going. In the beginning years I had absolutely no idea what I had ahead of me. Once I accepted my diabetes and realized how difficult it was to try to perform and dance all day on shots of insulin, even though I often wanted to quit, I just couldn’t. I had to try everything I could before saying I couldn’t do it. I didn’t want to regret chances not taken. To dance was to live.
What are some of the key points that you share with people during your public speaking engagements?
I talk about my denial and the ways it put me in harms way, mis- judging how to manage my diabetes. How my denial affected my ability to properly discuss my struggles with my doctor. How vitally important it is for us to tend to our physical and emotional health. And of course how important dreams and passion are in life, and that by taking care of our health we can better achieve those goals.
Do you use dance when you work with people who have diabetes? If so, how do you use it?
Not always, but sometimes I do little routines, simple exercise that get people up and moving. I like to remind them how fun it can be to move, exercise does not have to be something you have to do, and are in trouble with your physician if you don’t. It can be fun and a joy! Of course the kids love to move, so with them I like to challenge their balance and also push them with some fun yet difficult moves.
How did you deal with feelings of fear when you received your diagnosis? How were you able to move past those fears?
I was in such denial I didn’t really feel fear in the beginning. And when the denial wore off I didn’t feel well, so I’d say I felt more defeated and overwhelmed than fearful. It was daunting to imagine how I’d ever get back to feeling strong enough to dance the schedule demanded of me. Of course that changed as I learned to manage my diabetes and get my health in some semblance of control. Once I was on track the fear was in the form of a low level of worry, could I maintain this life as an insulin dependent diabetic? Everyday I wondered that.
And then, when I had a low blood sugar attack while performing the fear was much more immediate, throwing fast acting sugar in my mouth between entrances hoping I would not pass out on stage.
In your opinion, what are the most effective ways of dealing with diabetes?
Anyone with diabetes must check their blood sugar levels, take their medication (insulin or pills), eat a healthy diet, and tend to their emotional health. I find people have trouble sticking to a program, often due to emotional issues. The clearer we can be with what is in our hearts, the more we will be able to follow what our brain knows is the right path. But keeping close to normal blood sugar levels is important to avoid the devastating complications related to diabetes.
How and why did you decide to write the Sugarless Plum? How long did it take you to write the book?
I’d been sharing my story for about 10 years, and been told so many times I should write a book, that I had it in my mind to do one day. But it was only after my mother was diagnosed with Cancer that I sat down and began writing. Watching her go through many of the same issues, the denial, the mis-diagnosis, all the conflicting information, and the emotional confusion, I realized my story is not just a diabetic one, that the issues involved are universal.
Finding an agent who believed I had a story took 2 years. Actually I wanted to write a diet and exercise book, but could not find an agent. When I met my agent, she said she could not sell another self help book, but she could sell it as a memoir. The actual writing process took about 1 ½ years.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
Finding a passion in life, something that makes us feel connected, that has meaning and value is important for us all. And we must take care of our physical bodies to be able to experience that magic that life can offer.
To find out more about Zippora or her book, The Sugarless Plum, click here.