Paige Fraser started dancing when she was four, and won the coveted role of Clara in The Nutcracker when she was ten—at the time, she notes, it was a big deal because the Bronx-born Fraser was a Black girl dancing for a ballet school in predominantly white Westchester County.
“I think that was a turning point for me, where it was like ‘OK, dance is no longer an after-school activity. I love dance and people see something in me,’” Fraser says. She won a slot in the prestigious Professional Performing Arts School, run through the Ailey School of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
But at 13, Fraser was diagnosed with scoliosis. “It literally came out of nowhere,” says Fraser. “When I was being examined by the doctor and I had X-rays and I had to see the surgeon, it was very very scary to me to hear that I had a condition that affected my spine, because as a dancer, your spine is everything. To also hear the surgeon recommend surgery, that also was very disheartening and scary.”
Fraser opted out of surgery, and instead treated her scoliosis through a combination of a back brace, chiropractic care, and physical therapy. And despite that challenge, at 29, she’s continued to build an impressive career in dance. Fraser moved to Chicago in 2013 (after earning a BFA in dance through the Ailey/Fordham University program and touring nationally and internationally for two years with the Ailey II company) to become one of the founding ensemble members in Visceral Dance Chicago. Additionally, Fraser has been a guest artist with Deeply Rooted, won a Princess Grace Award in 2016, and made Dance Magazine’s “25 to Watch” list in 2017.
Now Fraser encourages others, dancers and nondancers alike, who are confronting scoliosis and other spinal conditions, through the Paige Fraser Foundation, which she cofounded in 2017 with the her aunt, Lesmah Fraser.
Though the foundation is based out of New York (and Fraser would like to return to the Bronx one day to open a performing arts center in her old neighborhood), they’ve done programming in Chicago, where Fraser is currently on COVID-19 hiatus as a dancer in the national Broadway tour of The Lion King. Last year, the foundation offered their “Dance Is Healing” program for the south side’s Oglesby Elementary School. That program is open to young dancers 10-18, and those with disabilities are especially encouraged to apply. Participants (who must have some prior dance experience) get instruction and coaching in a variety of styles from professional dancers. The foundation will be announcing virtual sessions for the program later this fall through the website.
The other major programming component for the Paige Fraser Foundation is “The Spine Series,” which concludes this Sunday over Zoom and is open to anyone with spinal conditions. Some of the elements of the series include yoga for scoliosis and other breathing, strengthening, and movement exercises.
Fraser started this series in part because of the COVID shutdown. “I myself was having some stiffness in my body just from not dancing as much as I used to. I can take class and do all these things, but I’m not used to sitting this much. And the Spine Series initially started out as live classes on Instagram, and then it was so well received that I was like, OK, let me do this on Zoom.” Fraser notes that being online has had a global impact. “We’ve had 74 participants from all over the world. Egypt, Malaysia. It’s really incredible.”
When asked if, at 13, she feared what telling others about her diagnosis might mean for her future career, Fraser responds, “I luckily had a very rare situation. Again, I went to a performing arts school so everyone was different.” She notes that not only did she have the support of her peers, but also of a teacher and director in the school who herself had scoliosis. “That’s my advice to young people dealing with it: you don’t have to suffer alone or be embarrassed, because it just makes the process even harder. I think accepting yourself and working through it is more important.”
And though the foundation hasn’t set dates for the next Spine Series, Fraser encourages those with spinal conditions to get in touch through the website. “I get a ton of messages [asking] about how to push through scoliosis, how to deal with scoliosis. And I also have other advocates on the website that people can reach out to and read about their experiences with scoliosis,” she says, adding, “Some people come on the Zoom just to listen because they are in pain. It’s so important because again, people feel embarrassed. I know people with scoliosis who don’t wear striped shirts, or bathing suits. I understand and I want people to know that they are not alone and they can talk about it with us.”
Fly Honey at home
Self-acceptance and body positivity have also been central to the mission of The Fly Honey Show since its inception. This Saturday at 9 PM, the show goes virtual with D.I.Y. Fly 2020, which encourages participants to have their own dance party at home while watching livestream music and dance, as well as videos of past performances and “Honey history” from the best queer feminist punk burlesque cabaret in town.
Erin Kilmurray, founder and director of Fly Honey, says in an e-mail, “We have realized that even though our annual production could not happen, ALL OUR HONEYS have, in fact, still had a Honey Season in 2020. It’s just taken a new form, in smaller more private Hives, with a movement to the movement, in extremely individualized ways.” Part of that “movement to the movement” includes sending a portion of this year’s online proceeds to Brave Space Alliance; the rest will be split between the featured performers. They are also sponsoring a donation supply drive for Brave Space on Saturday, September 26, noon-6 PM at Land and Sea Dept, 3124 W. Carroll. v