Redbourn dance company founder has plenty of fighting spirit

PUBLISHED: 12:02 31 May 2013 | UPDATED: 12:02 31 May 2013

Suzie Birchwood is a dancer, choreographer and artistic director of ActOne ArtsBase who run dance projects in Hertfordshire

Suzie Birchwood is a dancer, choreographer and artistic director of ActOne ArtsBase who run dance projects in Hertfordshire

Archant

EVERYTHING happens for a reason is one of those sayings that people often try to convince themselves of when they are thrown a curveball in life.

But these words can be so much more powerful if you genuinely believe them, as Suzie Birchwood found out while embarking on her life-long ambition to become a prima ballerina.

I meet Suzie at her home in Redbourn just a few weeks after she made it onto the The Independent’s annual Happy List. She was one of 100 people named for making Britain a better place for the work she does with her local dance company.

When I ask her about it she smiles humbly, but you can see it means a lot to her as this was not the career she had imagined for herself.

Suzie was born with twinkle toes and from as far back as she can remember felt it was her destiny to become a dancer.

The budding ballerina was on the road to stardom when at 16 years old she won a full scholarship to study at the London Studio Centre but two terms in, her body started to change.

“It started as a spasm in the right hand side of my back and my right shoulder and neck. I was in a contemporary class and locked into spasm and I couldn’t move.

“At the time it felt like my world was ending. In ballet you have to be so physically fit and so naturally strong and the minute that any injury starts showing you kind of know that there isn’t a way back in,” she painfully recalls.

This was the day the symptoms of Dystonia, an incurable neurological movement disorder that causes muscle spasms throughout the body, first started to appear.

For the next few months Suzie, now 36, was kept in hospital while doctors tried to pinpoint her condition. Eventually she was strong enough to return to college but deep down knew her hopes of becoming a prima ballerina were dashed.

She was desperate to continue training as a professional dancer despite now having to walk with the aid of a stick, but was growing increasingly aware of people’s changing attitudes towards her: “There was a lot of fear and attitudinal barriers. The world of commercial dance and ballet has historically been this perfect physique and so anything that was not fitting into that was seen as ‘You cannot possible put that on stage who would want to look at that?’.”

RELAPSE

In 2001 after suffering a severe relapse Suzie was finally diagnosed with Dystonia and admits she had hit rock bottom. The disorder was now affecting all parts of her body and would leave her permanently wheelchair-bound.

But forever the optimist she wasn’t going to let it beat her and from her hospital bed began drawing up plans to start a dance company: “The day I got my diagnosis I just made a really conscious decision to change everything in my life and make it positive.

“It became very important to me that I needed to do something meaningful. I had been through a very traumatic eight years and been very misunderstood during those years.”

After being discharged from hospital she registered her charity, ActOne Artsbase, and since then has developed a number of projects across Hertfordshire specifically aimed at people who have been excluded from the arts.

This includes weekly sessions in creative contemporary dance, a trainee programme for aspiring dancers aged 18 and over, and a professional touring dance company called Arc.

Still a performer at heart, Suzie’s company also gives her a platform to continue dancing, and more importantly somewhere she feels able to work in between her treatments to minimise the symptoms of Dystonia.

She looks up at me and beams. “It is an environment that is so accepting and nobody thinks it’s weird that I am convulsing on the floor because I am having a spasm.

“Things just go on and I can continue to feel useful and it is very important to me because otherwise I am not empowered anymore and then I feel disabled.”

FUNDING CRISIS

Suzie has big plans for ActOne Artsbase, including setting up an adult dance project in St Albans, but is being held back by her current funding situation.

Without raising more money through charitable donations she explains it is likely she will not be able to keep her company going beyond October.

But she will continue to fight for its survival as she confesses it gives her more pleasure than becoming a ballerina ever could have done: “I would have been really happy dancing and I would have loved that but I would not have felt completely fulfilled.

“I think I knew that from when I was really quite young and I always had a sense of understanding how the arts have great power, but there is a lot more to be done with the arts than just the performance side and I would always want to be involved in that.”

For more information and details on how to donate visit artsbase.org.uk


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