Two young dancers, who will perform in a local “The Nutcracker” production this week, could have quit because of severe health problems. But instead of giving up, they have learned to overcome their obstacles and live their dreams.
Seventh-grader Kylee Packham, 12, of Stansbury Park, and eighth-grader Jacee Walker, 14, of Tooele, are on the competitive dance team at The Dance Centre in Stansbury Park. Each say their health struggles have made them grow stronger as an individual, teammate and dancer. They also both say continuing to develop their talent through pain and heartbreak has been worth the struggle.
Packham enjoys playing the violin, piano, hanging out with friends and, of course, dancing. She has been dancing since she was 3 and she now practices five days a week, excelling in ballet, jazz, contemporary dance and tumbling. In the last few years, she has even branched out and performed solo dances, winning a handful of first-place trophies.
Packham’s health troubles began in the summer of 2014, when she went to see pediatrician Jim Gould, MD for a regular health exam. During the check-up, Gould had a concern about her spine. When he asked her to touch her toes, he saw an abnormality and sent her to have an X-ray done. It came back showing that Packham had scoliosis.
“It’s where your spine is curved in one direction,” said Sharayne Packham, Kylee Packham’s mother.
The X-ray showed that Packham’s spine was bent at a 14-degree angle. Even with the diagnosis, her family continued to support her love for dance.
“We never saw her scoliosis as an obstacle, or something to overcome,” Sharayne Packham said. “We just encouraged her to keep dancing.”
Three years after finding out she had scoliosis, Kylee Packham’s spinal cord continues to worsen. It has now reached a 45-degree angle. For treatment, she now wears a back brace all day — well, her mother said, at least when she is doing what the doctor ordered. She can take it off to dance, but she sleeps with it on at night.
If left untreated, Sharayne Packham said, the spinal cord continues to curve and could cause problems that are harder to correct and require surgery. Fortunately, Kylee Packham doesn’t feel any pain.
“I love dance as much as I love opening presents on Christmas morning,” she said.
In 2013, a year before Packham was diagnosed with scoliosis, Walker started dancing at The Dance Centre. The two soon got to know each other at TDC, when Walker was facing her own challenges that had doctors mystified.
Walker enjoys watching Netflix and someday wants to be a cosmetologist. One day at school, while sitting at her desk, her hand suddenly turned blue and became severely painful. She immediately showed her teacher and left the classroom.
At the office, Walker called her mom and left school to go to the doctor. During the next few weeks, she visited different doctors and none could pinpoint what was going on. One minute her hand was blue and then, by the time she would get to the doctor, it would be fine. Finally, the doctor gave her medication to help control the pain.
Later, another doctor diagnosed her with reverse Raynaud’s disease, a condition in which toes or fingers turn blue when cold or stressed. During one visit, the doctor told Walker that she would not dance again. The teen had just signed a contract to dance with Extreme, TDC’s competitive dance team.
Walker had played soccer and quit because of the sport’s high volume of running, but she didn’t want to quit dance.
“When they tell me to do something else, I feel like they’re telling me to give up on my dream — but I’m not going to give up,” Walker said.
Tonya Walker, Jacee Walker’s mother, said, “If things seem bleak, there’s always a way. It might not be the way you want, or the way you think it should be, but there’s always a way to keep their dreams alive.”
Walker and her mother didn’t follow the doctor’s suggestion and Walker continues to dance. Tonya Walker said she could not see her daughter deserting her dream.
“Keep trying, keep dreaming and you don’t have to change your dream, you just have to find a way around it,” Tonya Walker said.
Both teen dancers have found strength and support from their dance team, as well as each other. Packham’s team has helped teach her to love everyone. Walker found the same example and friendship.
“TDC has taught me to treat everyone the same,” Walker said.
Both she and Packham feel their teammates have become family and that the team is their best support outside of their families.
“I think the support group that is set up for a problem isn’t nearly as beneficial as a support group that is set up by people who love to do the things you do,” Tonya Walker said. She also believes that another important factor is to “focus on what you can do, instead of what you can’t do and things will start to change. You will be able to do things you never knew you could do.”
Since diagnosis, Walker was put on medication that has helped her regulate the pain and dizziness. Every day she has to take a pill to control her blood pressure.
During a competition last year in Provo, both Walker and Packham were on stage, performing with their team.
“I felt OK — until I got on stage,” said Walker.
Her vision went black but she did not pass out. She continued dancing, but was unable to see her surroundings. She had all of her other senses, and because of all of the rehearsing, she could remember the actions.
Yet, the other dancers noticed their teammate was struggling. But instead of doing nothing during the performance, they intervened.
“They tried to help me by dancing around me,” Walker said.
At the end of the routine, the girls carried her off. Once they were offstage, they told her that they cared about her and asked if she was OK.
“I knew then that I was part of the TDC family because everyone around me made me feel loved,” she said.
Walker’s mom was watching from the audience and knew instantly that something was wrong.
“She would go to a spot, and would be dancing, but would not be facing the correct way,” Tonya Walker said. “I felt bad for Jacee, but because the girls were so amazing about not caring that they didn’t win, it made things a lot easier to accept.”
Following that experience, her family learned Walker must immediately put her feet up after a performance to help with circulation. Although the team received the lowest score, Packham remembers it as one of her most memorable experiences because of how the team treated each other.
The team didn’t care about the trophy, she said. They cared about their friend.
Both Packham and Walker have advice for other dancers who may be struggling in some way.
“Even though it’s hard, keep pushing through because the reward is amazing,” Packham said.
Walker added, “I would tell them to talk to someone, so you’re not carrying all that pressure by yourself. My mom has helped me.”
The two girls will perform onstage at TDC’s production of “The Nutcracker” on Nov. 18 and 19 at Stansbury High School’s auditorium. Both performances begin at 7 p.m. and tickets are available at the door or at tdc.booktix.com. Packham and Walker plan to continue to dance and cheer each other on. As teammates and friends, they are learning to overcome their health challenges and to push through pain to live their dancing dream.