Diabetes doesn’t keep Karz in the corner

Zippora Karz hated ballet when she started dancing as a child, but after her parents divorced and she was abused by her mother’s boyfriend, ballet became an escape. She spent most of her time in the studio, and took up to four classes a day; she didn’t want to go home.

When she turned 21, her world came crashing down as she was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes.

On May 9, Karz told her life story, which she published in a book entitled, ‘The Sugarless Plum,’ and taught an advanced ballet class at Santa Monica College as part of the ‘Masters of Dance’ guest lecture series.

The series has been organized by the dance department for 30 years and was funded by the SMC Associates. According to dance department chair, Judith Douglas, well-known professionals are invited every semester to instruct students in different kinds of dance and to serve as a source of inspiration.

At the age of 15, Karz’s teacher encouraged her to move to New York and attend the New York City Ballet (NYCB). At the time, a famous choreographer and co-founder of the NYCB, George Balanchine, was still alive. Karz worked with the most talented dancers, choreographers and teachers, and had a bright future in her sights.

“At a very young age I started having these experiences in ballet class, where all of a sudden you are not thinking anymore,” said Karz. “You are just existing in that moment and having this pure expression with the music.”

In her second year with the ballet, Peter Martins - who was in charge of the NYCB along with Jerome Robbins after Balanchine’s death - gave her the role as the Sugarplum Fairy in the ‘Nutcracker,’ one of her favorite roles.

“I was so humbled by the fact that I was there [at the NYCB], and it really wasn’t even about getting into the ballet,” said Karz. “It was just about being touched by genius.”

During her lecture, Karz stated that she started to develop symptoms in her third year at the NYCB. She was constantly thirsty and hungry, and had to urinate all the time. With classes in the morning, rehearsals up to six hours a day, and a performance every night, she thought she just was burned out due to her daily schedule.

After she realized bad sores under her arms, she went to see a doctor who diagnosed her with diabetes. Suddenly words like heart attack, stroke and kidney failure got stuck in her head. At first, Karz was in complete denial of her disease.

“Diseases like that don’t happen to me,” she recalled thinking. “This is something that you give money to at a charity event.“

After years of wrong treatment due to a misdiagnosis of Type 2 diabetes, (instead of 1) and risking her life several times on stage, Karz finally got the strength to face her disease.  She said she thought about giving up dancing several times, because she didn’t know how to manage both dancing and her disease.

“The biggest thing for me was to let go of having to be perfect all the time,” said Karz. “I had to redefine what my potential was. I had potential as a diabetic.”

25-year-old SMC student Artur Varjapetian came to the United States four years ago from Central Asia, and started dancing only two and a half years ago. He especially liked ballet because it took a lot of strength and discipline.

“I love when I’m in the dance studio,” said Varjapetian. “You just dance, and if you want to enjoy it, you have to forget about all your problems. You just focus on the given moment.”

Varjapetian found Karz’s lecture very inspiring, especially her energy and positive attitude.

“It’s nice that our dance department brings so many professional people to teach and share these kind of stories. They inspire us, and make us think,” said Varjapetian.

It took Karz nine years to get promoted to soloist, because she had to prove that she was consistent and reliable. After her diagnosis, she danced for 13 years in the NYCB before she retired in 1999. She now teaches ballet, serves as a diabetes spokesperson, and is a regular columnist for the Huffington Post.