Finding Strength Through Highland Dance
Callum’s Dancer Diary
Hi! I’m Callum, and I’m a diabetic Highland dancer.
I’ve been dancing since I was four years old, and I signed up for my first dance lessons just a few short months after my diagnosis with Type One Diabetes.
After dancing for over fifteen years, I’ve heard a lot of assumptions and stereotypes about chronic illness and disability as it relates to high performance athleticism, so I want to take the time to talk about my thoughts and experience as a disabled dancer.
Before I get into my experience with Highland, let’s cover the basics:
What is Diabetes?
There’s a lot of information out there about diabetes, some more accurate than others. It’s a complex illness that varies from person to person, so it can be hard to know where to get your information from.
Simply put, diabetes is a chronic illness which affects the way that sugar is absorbed by the body. It targets the pancreas, which produces a hormone called insulin, and stops it from producing insulin the way it should. A properly functioning pancreas releases insulin every time a person eats. Insulin captures the sugar in the food they’ve eaten and turns it into useable energy for the body. For someone with diabetes, this process doesn’t work quite right.
There are two major types of diabetes, known as “Type One” and “Type Two”. Type One diabetes shuts down the pancreas completely, so Type One diabetics don’t have any natural insulin production. We use syringes, insulin pens, or insulin pumps to inject artificial insulin periodically throughout the day and every time we eat.
Type Two Diabetes slows down insulin production, but doesn’t stop it completely. Type Two Diabetics need to monitor their blood sugar – literally the level of sugar in their blood – carefully, but don’t always use insulin.
If diabetics don’t manage our insulin levels properly, our blood sugar can go high or low. If it’s high, most people feel irritable, tired, headachy and nauseous, or thirsty. If it’s low, people can feel dizzy, shaky, confused, and extra emotional.
For people without diabetes, their blood sugar stays pretty consistent throughout the day. Mine rises and falls multiple times a day, and it requires constant supervision (made easier by the incredible insulin pump and Continuous Glucose Monitoring systems I am lucky to use).
Lots of people know the basics, but there is a lot of misinformation out there as well. Here’s a quick rundown of some of the most common misconceptions I’ve run into:
- How did you get diabetes? Were you overweight as a child? Did you eat too much sugar?
- Diet and obesity can be contributing factors for Type Two Diabetes, but not Type One. Type One is often a result of genetics – I’m a diabetic just like my dad!
- Your blood sugar is low, do you need insulin?
- No! Insulin is the last thing I need, but a juice box or a few jellybeans would be great.
- You can’t have cake or anything sweet, can you? (this was a BIG one at childhood birthday parties!)
- I can actually eat whatever I want, as long as I bolus (give myself insulin) properly for it.
- I heard of this new diet that can cure diabetes, you should give it a try!
- Unfortunately, while diet and exercise can help people manage and potentially reverse Type Two Diabetes, there is currently no cure for Type One Diabetes. There’s lots of incredible research happening every day, though!
Diabetes and Highland Dance
Part of the reason I joined Highland dance in the first place was because my mom thought it would help us manage my diabetes. While diet and exercise will never cure my condition, it can be a big contributing factor to getting better control.
The benefits didn’t stop there.
We’ve already posted about the many benefits of Highland dance. Like everyone else in my studio, I developed all these skills and they’ve been incredibly useful in my everyday life.
But each one of these skills has also impacted my relationship with and management of my disability. The benefits of Highland dance have manifested in unique ways; here’s my perspective.
A Disabled Dancer’s Perspective on the Benefits of Highland Dance
There were times when I was younger when I would put off treating low blood sugar because I didn’t want to interrupt my teacher in class or to stop a conversation to get something to eat. Learning to get onstage, to perform for a crowd, and knowing I had practiced enough to get through a dance with no mistakes also meant I was more confident in speaking up for my needs.
I began to advocate for myself more effectively, and stopped feeling embarrassed about taking care of my needs.
Diabetes, like any disability, is a full-time job. It simply doesn’t take a day off. There are times it can be overwhelming, but we don’t have the option to step back and deal with it another time.
While we can take a break from dance if – and when – we need to, it also requires commitment and willingness to persevere in the face of a challenge. As much as we’d like it to, flat-back turnout doesn’t come from an afternoon of practicing.
Developing the skills to tackle a challenge, get knocked down, and keep coming back to try again in dance have made the ups and downs of living with diabetes much more manageable – not to mention that dance has become a major source of stress relief for me!
The most incredible thing about Highland dance is the community you gain the instant you step through the doors of a studio. The people I dance with in class, the people I’ve competed with, and the people I’ve met travelling around the world have become some of my closest friends.
I’ve learned to be myself, fully and completely, in Highland dance classes, and I know that I’ve got so many people looking out for my health in this community.
In almost any Highland class, you’ll find dancers swapping out their ghillies for running shoes, taping their legs up before class, rolling and stretching their legs any chance they get, and occasionally bowing out of a dance early because of a weird twinge or sense of “wrong” in their body. Highland dancers learn to know exactly what our bodies need to be successful, and we know these needs change depending on the day.
In the same way I know when my legs are having an “off” day, I’ve been able to sense what a low blood sugar feels like five minutes before it happens. I can tell when my blood sugar is high, and I also know almost the instant it starts to drop back to normal. I know my body inside and out, and I credit that awareness in large part to Highland dance.
The Reality of Being a Diabetic Athlete
I won’t say that diabetes has never held me back from things I wanted to do – it has.
A few years ago, I was at a competition and my blood sugar just would not come up. I thought it was high enough to get through my Fling, got up on stage, and totally blanked in the middle of the second step (remember that low blood sugar can make you very confused at times). I jumped back in in the middle of my third step and finished the dance, but the damage had been done and I came off the stage in tears.
It took about half an hour for my mom to get me and my blood sugar straightened around, and by that time I’d missed at least one of my dances.
The worst part for me was that I didn’t want people to think I was that upset just because I’d messed up my Fling – I was just so overwhelmed, confused, and frustrated by my blood sugar that I couldn’t pull myself back together until my blood sugar had come back into a normal range.
There have been a few awkward moments as well.
At a different competition, my insulin pump flew out from where I’d tucked it into my waistband, and started swinging wildly around my legs from where it was attached to my stomach by a thin length of tubing. I was able to keep dancing for a bit, but ended up stopping my dance (the Fling again – maybe it’s a bad luck charm for me!) early before I tripped or ripped my cannula (the part that connects the pump to my body) out.
The next day, I attended a workshop with the judge who had watched my Fling. He came into the room, we made eye contact, and he came right over to ask if it had been some sort of communication device between me and my teacher that had fallen off my person yesterday, and if so, where could he get one?
I think he was actually a bit disappointed when I explained it was an insulin pump. We had a good laugh, but it wasn’t exactly a shining moment for me.
There have been multiple times where I’ve gotten on stage with blood sugar just a bit too high or low to be comfortable, knowing I wouldn’t give my best performance because I simply didn’t have the energy or the focus necessary to remember to fully point my toes or extend my legs. I’ve left dance classes feeling discouraged because I knew I could have pushed myself harder, learned more, if only my blood sugar had cooperated.
Finding Power in Dance
Despite these frustrating, somewhat embarrassing moments, there have been so many good ones to outweigh the bad.
When I had the opportunity to perform at the Basel Tattoo in 2018, my best friend and her two sisters became my personal “diabetic support staff” – checking in during rehearsals, offering to buy extra juice at the grocery store, and even carrying extra snacks in their bags just in case.
When I teach classes at Saorsa, my students know I might need a few minutes to have a snack in the middle of class, and are so incredibly respectful during those moments – it’s just as normal and natural as them needing a water break.
I’ve had the chance to teach people about diabetes and to meet other dancers with chronic conditions, and I’ve fallen in love with a sport that challenges me, inspires me, and teaches me new things every day.
So if you or your little one has a chronic condition or disability, don’t think for a second that you don’t have a place in Highland dance. Not only will you join an amazingly supportive community, you’ll end up learning more about yourself and your body than you ever thought possible.