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Pivot Pointe
November 1, 2023

Career Transition With Rika Brixie

Pilates Instructor & BASI Pilates Faculty

Rika Brixie qualified as a Pilates instructor through Pilates Therapy and BASI Pilates CTTC. She is proud to be BASI Pilates Faculty, teaching the BASI Pilates Global Comprehensive Program, and her own BASI workshop ‘Pilates for Scoliosis’.

Rika’s first and enduring passion in life is movement. Rika discovered Pilates as a young dancer in the UK, following diagnosis with scoliosis. She later moved to New York City to study classical ballet, where she began to implement regular Pilates classes into her training, recognising it’s potential for injury prevention and body conditioning. Rika danced professionally over the following years with Atlanta Ballet and Oklahoma City Ballet.

Upon retirement from her ballet career in 2015, Rika returned to the UK and began her first certification as a Pilates Instructor. She has since completed additional training in Pilates for Athletes, Injuries and Pathologies, Pregnancy, Hypermobility, Osteoporosis, The Foot, Dance Conditioning with Pilates and Pilates for Kids.

The experience of living with scoliosis has given Rika a unique insight into the deep workings of the body and movement. Pilates has been a tool of empowerment for Rika, enabling her to gain control of her condition and improve symmetrical balance around a spine that is inherently asymmetrical. Rika found true inspiration when she began teaching others with scoliosis. She was further able to observe the immense value of Pilates and the potentially transformative effects that it can hold for those with scoliosis.

Photo by BASI Pilates Italia

There is a phenomenon known as the vicious cycle of scoliosis. Once a curvature starts to develop, any movement or even carrying a backpack can create an uneven load on the bones, which contributes to the progression of the curvature. This is true for all individuals to varying degrees.

Let's start from the beginning. Could you share your experience when you were first diagnosed with scoliosis and how it potentially impacted your aspirations in ballet?

Rika Brixie: Yes, absolutely. I grew up in Bournemouth and was introduced to ballet at the age of 2 by my grandmother, who was a ballet teacher. My grandmother had scoliosis and there was a known family history of the condition. At the age of 14, my mum noticed a similar shape of my back to that of her mother's while I was wearing a leotard. She took me to the GP for a diagnosis, and I was then referred to a consultant. I underwent full X-rays and MRI scans to confirm the diagnosis. I have thoracic C curve scoliosis that curves to the right, measuring around 49 degrees, indicating a relatively severe curvature.

Scoliosis is most commonly diagnosed between the ages of 12 and 16, and at the already vulnerable time of puberty, the diagnosis was very traumatic for me. It felt, for a moment, like the end of my dreams of becoming a dancer. Despite the initial shock, I had a stubborn determination. On the day of my diagnosis, I texted my mum from school, assuring her that scoliosis wouldn't stop me; it would only make me stronger. I'm not sure where that determination came from, but I'm grateful for it. I entered a period of denial regarding my scoliosis, desperate not to let it hinder my aspirations, even though I knew it would present me with more challenges than my peers.

For the next two or three years, until I was about 16, I tried to push scoliosis to the back of my mind as much as possible. Looking back, it would have been better if I had the resources to understand and address my curvature at the time. However, it's common for people, especially adolescents, to go through this denial phase after diagnosis.

The reality is that scoliosis is not a terminal diagnosis, disability, or illness. It's simply a different shape of the spine. Unfortunately, the way the consultant presented it to me and the way my dance teachers reacted made me feel ashamed and made me believe that it would hold me back.

I searched dance magazines for any mention of someone with scoliosis. One of the first people I came across was Wendy Whelan, who is now the Associate Artistic Director of the New York City Ballet. At that time, she was a principal dancer. I framed her picture and put it on my wall, and she became my inspiration. If she could do it, I could do it.

I realized that I needed to approach dance differently than my peers. I needed to have a deeper understanding of my body, knowing that it was different. I auditioned for several vocational schools in the U.K., but my scoliosis would come up during the physio screenings, leading to rejections. It was demoralizing, and I didn't get into the schools I had hoped for.

However, my stubborn determination resurfaced. I suggested to my mum that we try schools in America. I knew that there were successful dancers with scoliosis in the US, and the US seemed to have a more accepting view of different body types. I sent video auditions to several schools in New York and received a few acceptances. Ultimately, I attended the Gelsey Kirkland Academy of Classical Ballet. Having scoliosis was not going to stop me. It only fueled my determination to pursue my dreams, even if it meant taking a different path than my peers.

I understand that scoliosis is more prevalent and progressive in females due to rapid growth before puberty than in males. Did you find Pilates to be more effective and beneficial for your condition in terms of rehabilitation and strength building, as opposed to other methods? If so, could you provide more details on this?

Rika: Yes, I did. Pilates was the method that I had the most exposure to from a young age, especially in the dance realm. I would do Pilates at summer intensives, and it was always available to me. When I was diagnosed with scoliosis, there were very few resources provided to me. Surgery was an option, but I chose to prioritize movement and my dance career, so I declined surgery.

In the U.K., if you choose not to have surgery, you enter into an observation period where you have X-rays every six months to two years. This waiting period can be frustrating. It was during this time that I discovered Pilates. My mum, who had always done Pilates, sent me to a mat Pilates instructor, who didn't specialize in scoliosis but could help me understand my body better and build strength around my spine to support my dance training.

I was given a set of basic Pilates exercises, and I religiously did them every night throughout my teenage years. It became my homework. It was incredibly helpful for me, as it allowed me to understand my body and adapt exercises to suit my needs. I continued with Pilates throughout my dance training and career, and I believe it played a significant role in keeping me injury-free, especially in regard to my spine.

That being said, other methods like yoga and strength and conditioning are also excellent. It's important to find the mode of exercise that works best for you. For me, Pilates was readily available and its methodology aligned well with my condition.

Photo by BASI Pilates Italia

Did your scoliosis worsen when you entered the professional realm and started dancing for Atlanta Ballet and Oklahoma City Ballet?

Rika: There is a phenomenon known as the vicious cycle of scoliosis. Once a curvature starts to develop, any movement or even carrying a backpack can create an uneven load on the bones, which contributes to the progression of the curvature. This is true for all individuals to varying degrees.

The main concern with scoliosis is its progression, as it tends to worsen over a person's lifetime. Personally, I believe that my scoliosis did not progress significantly while I was dancing. It may have progressed slightly through puberty and then become more fixed once I stopped growing.

I believe that my scoliosis remained relatively stable because of my strength and the variety of movements I regularly performed. However, I cannot be certain since, at that time, I did not want to see or think about my back. I was not actively addressing it, as self-preservation became a priority. I did not have any guidance from specialized instructors or professionals in the company who could advise me on managing the progression of my scoliosis. I was essentially the only one aware of what was happening with my condition.

When did you realize that you wanted to build a career centered around your passion for Pilates and its transformative effects on individuals with scoliosis?

Rika: Scoliosis didn't initially factor into my decision to work with Pilates. I had been doing Pilates for years, and it had always been my happy place. Pilates allowed me to enjoy movement that suited my body, unlike dance, which, in some ways, had become restrictive. Pilates fit around me, and I regained the joy of movement.

During my time at Oklahoma City Ballet, I found myself spending more time in the Pilates studio than dancing. I wasn't getting cast in pieces very often and I began to fall out of love with dance. Additionally, my visa was expiring, and I didn't have a contract for the next season. As I considered sending out audition tapes, I attended a casting and realized I no longer had the drive to perform. My decision to quit ballet came that day. I called my mum to tell her I was quitting, and, that same evening, she had a conversation with the Pilates instructor I had been working with in Bournemouth, who mentioned starting a teacher training program. It was serendipitous timing. The teacher training program was set to begin a week after I returned to the U.K. that summer. I immediately signed up, and it just felt like the right thing at the right time.

Quitting ballet was surprisingly easy for me, as it was the right decision. I couldn't have continued dancing without the same love and passion for it. Leaving dance behind was bittersweet, but I knew it was necessary to pursue something else that I loved.

Pilates for Scoliosis can help address imbalances and support dancers in achieving success in their performances. It is important to acknowledge that scoliosis should not be a reason for dancers to give up, rather, it requires a different type of conditioning and approach. Considering the prevalence of scoliosis in the dance world, specialized programs like Pilates for Scoliosis are highly valuable and necessary.

Many dancers transitioning in their careers pursue some form of Pilates certification, with the BASI certification being the most popular and common one. I'm interested in knowing how you became a BASI Pilates Faculty and how you went on to develop your workshop 'Pilates for Scoliosis'. Could you share the story behind that?

Rika: Yes, so the Pilates for Scoliosis workshop actually came first. I had completed a training called Pilates Therapy with my local instructor in Bournemouth. Then, I decided to do the BASI Pilates Global Comprehensive Program because it was a more globally recognized brand. BASI provided me with the opportunity to travel and work anywhere in the world. I qualified with BASI in 2017 and started working for my current boss, Lisa Lamberti, who is the head of BASI Pilates (U.K.). 

I attended a taster workshop about scoliosis and my interest was sparked. I came back from the workshop brimming with ideas that I wanted to explore. Throughout my dance career and Pilates training, I had been waiting for someone to provide me with the golden nugget of information about scoliosis. I thought someone out there must have the answer to specific strengthening and conditioning for scoliosis, but I couldn't find it anywhere.

Working with some of the most brilliant Pilates instructors in the country, I realized that no one had the understanding I was seeking. Lisa, my boss, told me that if I wanted a method of working with scoliosis, I would have to create it. It was like I had been given the permission I had been waiting for since I was 14. I volunteered my time with people who had scoliosis, conducted extensive research, contacted physios, and practiced with others to develop a methodology to help people with scoliosis. This is how I wrote Pilates for Scoliosis.

The year I was writing Pilates for Scoliosis was probably the happiest I've ever been. It was an incredible experience. At the end of that year, I presented Pilates for Scoliosis to a trial group in London. As a result, I was invited by the head of BASI Pilates in Los Angeles to present it there.

I was fortunate to have that opportunity and made valuable connections. I became BASI Pilates Associate Faculty, teaching my Pilates for Scoliosis program worldwide. Later, in 2020, I became BASI Pilates Faculty, teaching teacher training programs. It was a fast-moving journey, which involved fulfilling certain requirements and sitting through the course multiple times. My experiences whilst becoming BASI Pilates Faculty, and now continuing that role, have been amazing.

What challenges do dancers with scoliosis face in their daily lives and careers?

Rika: There are several challenges that dancers with scoliosis face. Firstly, there is a significant mental burden. In the dance world, which often prioritizes ideal body types, having scoliosis can make dancers feel like they don't quite fit in. This mental burden is one of the biggest challenges a dancer with scoliosis faces. Additionally, there are physical challenges due to the asymmetry caused by scoliosis. For example, dancers with scoliosis will often have one hip that is higher; favor a certain leg in arabesque; and have difficulty turning in certain directions.

To overcome these challenges, it is important for dancers with scoliosis to have a well-designed conditioning program. This can include specific exercises like Pilates for Scoliosis, or a combination of strength and conditioning exercises. It is crucial for dancers to understand that the differences in their bodies are not wrong, but they may require a different approach compared to dancers with symmetrical spines.

Pilates for Scoliosis can help address imbalances and support dancers in achieving success in their performances. It is important to acknowledge that scoliosis should not be a reason for dancers to give up, rather, it requires a different type of conditioning and approach. Considering the prevalence of scoliosis in the dance world, specialized programs like Pilates for Scoliosis are highly valuable and necessary.

Photo by BASI Pilates Italia

Do you believe that many people with scoliosis are unaware of their condition? Are there any preventive measures that can be taken, especially for young adolescents versus mature dancers?

Rika: Scoliosis is technically defined as a lateral curvature of more than 10 degrees, with accompanying rotation of the spine. In the dance realm, where body awareness is emphasized, most individuals with moderate to severe scoliosis are likely aware of their condition. They can easily notice any unevenness in their waistline or a clear curvature in their back when looking in the mirror. However, minor curvatures may go unnoticed, especially outside the dance world.

In some countries, such as the U.S., scoliosis screening is still conducted in schools. Unfortunately, in the U.K., this practice has been discontinued, resulting in many undetected curvatures. It is important to be aware of any emerging asymmetry that does not improve and consider consulting a practitioner for evaluation. In active individuals, asymmetry can also be caused by overdeveloped muscles on one side, indicating perhaps a more minor curvature.

Functional scoliosis or imbalances around the spine like this can occur, which is different from structural scoliosis. Structural scoliosis tends to have a more notable appearance and is more easily identified and diagnosed.

How do you envision the growth of your platform and workshop, 'Pilates for Scoliosis', within the dance industry?

Rika: I am fortunate to work with young dancers, often around the time of their scoliosis diagnosis, which is where I was when I was 14 years old. It is a rewarding and cathartic experience to assist them by providing exercises they can do at home to improve their scoliosis and develop a better understanding of their bodies. This includes understanding how their spinal curvature may impact their dance careers and giving them the tools they need to work through this. I am currently collaborating with Markella Kefallonitou, an expert in Pilates for dancers, on a three-hour workshop about Scoliosis and the Dancer.

We are reaching out to major dance institutions in the U.K. to share the techniques I have developed through Pilates for Scoliosis, along with Markella's expertise in working with young dancers. Our main focus is to share this knowledge with dance teachers, as they are often the first point of contact for young dancers diagnosed with scoliosis. By providing dance teachers with resources and understanding, we hope to positively influence the next generation of dancers with scoliosis. Our goal is to ensure that a diagnosis of scoliosis does not feel like a fatality for their dance career, but rather something they can work with and adapt to, with the appropriate support and resources from their teachers.

Photo by BASI Pilates Italia

Any advice for dancers thinking about a career transition or about to embark on the journey?

Rika: I believe that making a career transition can be challenging because each individual comes from a unique perspective. However, I suggest finding something that you are truly passionate about and dedicating yourself to it with the same level of commitment you had for dance. When I see my friends who have stopped dancing, I am amazed by their incredible accomplishments in various fields such as nursing, culinary arts, photography, real estate, and many more. If you can discover something that ignites your passion, the skills and discipline you acquired as a dancer will greatly benefit you in any career you pursue.

Additionally, remember that there is a vast world beyond the dance industry, one that is worth exploring despite the initial fear and the need to approach everything with a fresh perspective.

Top Image: Photo Courtesy of Rika Brixie

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