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Book Review: The Sugarless Plum by Zippora Karz

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Balancing on my toe tips appears to be pained utter foolishness. It ranks up there with trying to get a ballpoint pen to balance on its tip. A spinning top I can understand. But a balancing act on toes with one leg extended, in my mind, is akin to drawing a square circle.

Yet, that is precisely the magic people delight in each time the curtain rises, and Zippora Karz flies across the stage — effortlessly — poised only on the tips of her ballet shoes. She smiles continuously, not because of the audience, but because she is happy with herself. She has reached a pinnacle few ballerinas can claim. She has achieved a dream. She is a soloist.

If she makes a mistake, God forbid, she covers it so brilliantly that even the most critical ballet trainer/instructor would fail to notice. Critics call her daunting graceful poise: flawless, magnificent, like-no-other. She dances difficult routines choreographed specifically for her — so well known and executed are her skills.

The Sugarless Plum is the story of Zippora Karz, told by her in first person. She reveals the mystique of ballet in such a way that only with our imaginations can we, outside the art, know the struggles, hardships, disappointments all ballerina’s face.

• There are the constant struggles with sore feet: calluses, blisters, bent or dislocated toes, even broken bones. 
• There are the hardships of daily workouts and countless hours of practice at the barre. 
• There are the uncountable disappointments posted on bulletin boards where a ballerina finds she did or did not receive a part or that she may or may not move to a higher level class. 

Karz begins The Sugarless Plum at age twenty-one. She is starring in a brand-new ballet, Les Petits Riens. Her good friend, Peter Martins, the ballet-master-in-chief of the New York City Ballet, has choreographed her starring role. Zippora has been a member of this world famous ballet company for only three years now.

She dances exceptionally well. Dancing at Lincoln Center before 2,700 people is “an incredible honor.” Success in this ballet series will be another giant stride toward a career filled with tours to dozens of world stages. She will be seen by audiences around the globe where the sheer art of her dancing will leave people breathless.

Yet, Karz feels physically doomed. Her body has let her down. Regardless of the success of her dancing, she is tired, fatigued, run down to the point of exhaustion. But sheer dedication moves her forward. Where she used to delight in the graceful leaps and thrilling body twists and turns, now she leaves the stage and collapses against the nearest anything that will support her weight, even if it means sliding to the floor.

She finds herself developing painful sores under her armpits. But a ballerina must lift her arms. Makeup — heavy makeup solves that problem — for now. She has difficulty sleeping. She finds herself famished, but regardless of what she eats, her weight plummets and her peers start whispering. She craves water, only to urinate more and more frequently.

Finally, she explains her dilemma to a physician who sends her for blood tests. Too busy with daily practice and warm up activities, Karz ignores his messages to contact him. Unwittingly, she is on a collision course with disaster. Although she has danced the magnificent role of The Sugar Plum fairy in The Nutcracker, now Karz is indeed The Sugarless Plum

Due to lack of normally released body insulin, what oxygen there is in her body’s bloodstream cannot be taken into her cells in sufficient amounts. Without oxygen, cells cannot survive. Diabetics can lose limbs, become blind, suffer kidney failure. Ultimately, they can die of heart disease or stroke.

That can’t be me, Karz tells herself in The Sugarless Plum. Not so. Impossible. I’m a dancer, a damn good one at that. And yet, she secretly suspects her illness is causing her fatigue, her loss of weight, her water craving, her incessant urination. The undeniable symptoms glare at her. 

She has wrestled with her body for years to gain formidable muscle control to develop into a solo ballerina. Now, she must struggle with her spirit to fight disabling depression and to gain control of a demon which would destroy her career and her very existence. 

Like so many ballets, it’s pathetic that The Sugarless Plum is not a fairy tale. It is a real life story of a woman with indomitable courage who must grab a life threatening problem and deal with it. Any reader that likes exciting non-fiction will empathize with Karz. Her story is never cute. It is not a ploy for pity. It is not for vainglory.

This story is written to show others how one woman came face to face with sheer disaster. It cannot be easy facing an enemy within, particularly an incurable one that requires self blood testing many times each day and a constant vigilance on food intake. Nor can it be easy to watch the disorder progress.

This is not a woman’s book. It is not a narrative about ballet. Karz’s story will leave all readers in awe because it is a tale of the stubbornness of the human spirit. It is for people trying to understand diabetes and its effects, whether they have the disorder or not. It would be a fascinating book for high school and college students to study and discuss—particularly those who feel life treated them unjustly.

For men and women alike, I would give The Sugarless Plum my highest recommendation. 

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