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Dancing in a ballet company while struggling with diabetes

Book Review: The Sugarless Plum: A Ballerina’s Triumph Over Diabetes by Zippora Karz

At age 21, three years into a promising career with the New York City Ballet Company, dancing in eight shows a week, attending daily rehearsals and taking classes, Zippora Karz felt sick.

In The Sugarless Plum, Karz has a chilling ability, for such a young writer, to take the cadence of dance and turn it into this suspenseful, fast-paced memoir of her day-by-day journey to discover the source of her illness.

While managing her own career in ballet and independently handling health problems, Karz showed unusual maturity. Yet, of course, on receiving the diagnosis of diabetes, she was young enough to think: “Things like that don’t happen to people like me.”

This girl was clearly born to dance and was driven to conquer her medical problems: “Most important of all, when I got my head out of the way and let the music flow through my body, I felt something bigger, grander, purer and more meaningful than anything I had ever experienced at any other time in my life.”

Her life was rich with talent, caring mentors and family, and opportunities to dance for Mr. B, as in Balanchine. She danced with the corps in some of his well-known works, and was one of only four company dancers chosen as demi-soloists. One lucky day she even danced with Balanchine, when he thought her partner needed some inspiration. Such enormous pressure for a young girl. The Sugarless Plum is a powerful memoir of Karz’s trials, struggles, sacrifices, loneliness and exhaustion.

All along the way, Karz was afraid of what was happening to her, yet again and again saying “This can’t be happening.” Mix the nervous anxiety of performing in a ballet company with insomnia, sores, painful muscles, trembling and instability, and your heart nearly breaks for this girl.

The story moves along rapidly, as did her years in the company. By Chapter 25, she has seen many doctors and tried to balance the stress of her now international career as a dancer with the needs of her body. She grew particularly sophisticated in thinking about her work, her illness, wondering why some people get sick, and whether could she reverse diabetes.

Page after page, The Sugarless Plum, is much, much more than the simple story of a girl who overcomes obstacles to live her dream. Making the transition from healthy dancer to dancer with a disease, she notes: "It was not lost on me that as a dancer I was always trying to achieve perfect balance, and now I was trying to perfectly balance my blood sugar levels as well.”

As Karz felt the career she loved was taking a toll on her life, she struggled over whether to go for challenging roles, or accept a lesser but more realistic alternative, considering the pain and struggles in her life. A tough decision, since it is so evident that Karz still had moments when she felt normal, especially dancing those great Balanchine ballets.

The Sugarless Plum is full of profound insights on health, career, family, and taking charge of her life. Karz also found meaning in her illness by sharing her story. She has written a great aid to anyone sorting out the diagnosis of diabetes and struggling to live a normal life. When one choreographer called her a “tough cookie” he surely didn’t know just how tough this girl would become. Her book is a fabulous motivator for those who need inspiration in battling any difficulties in life.

About Helen Gallagher

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