Choreographer and motivational speaker, Amy Jordan, knows the perils and triumphs of life with Type 1 diabetes. Diagnosed at age 4, she always wanted to be a dancer, and danced professionally for many years.
She struggled with the dancer’s issue of body image and became bulimic, which is a disaster for a serious diabetic. She started losing her eyesight in her 20s and after 40 operations, lost her vision in one eye and is now legally blind.
She became active in the diabetes prevention community and started a non-profit called Sweet Enuff, to help obese kids deal with their diabetes through dance and exercise. It was a national top finalist for First Lady Michelle Obama’s “End Childhood Obesity Challenge.”
Then, everything stopped: She was hit by a NYC bus in 2009, while crossing 72nd Street in New York. She was told she would never walk again. The doctors said that the diabetes would complicate her recovery.
Horrible news for anyone, but for a dancer, especially tragic. Amy is a tough woman: At 38, she had already overcome more obstacles than most of us could imagine– and so she decided to prove them wrong: Not only would she walk, but she would dance again. She would do a Victory Dance.
When she was hit by the bus (it actually ran over her), her right leg was completely crushed and she underwent dozens of surgeries to save her life. She used her dance training and discipline to regain use of her leg and against all odds, started taking dance classes and choreographing.
She founded The Victory Dance Project with the mission to “Make the Impossible Possible with the Power of Movement.” The company just celebrated its second anniversary.
Today, Amy strives to inspire and motivate others struggling with diabetes, chronic illness, trauma, and personal struggles. She continues to choreograph and work with dancers, and is preparing to hold workshops in Palm Beach this autumn.
You were diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at age 4. How did you and your family react?
I was so young. It was not easy. I did not understand why my parents sat me down to give me a shot. I did not understand why suddenly my favorite foods were off limits.
It was 1974 and things were different then. There was no carb counting, no insulin pump, no dialogue, not even a blood glucose- testing meter. I had to pee in a cup to try and get a sense of my blood glucose. It was not very effective but it was all we had back then.
I started dancing seriously in high school. It was an escape for me. It was a safe place where I felt normal and nobody knew I was sick.
I was in denial – a common reaction to a serious chronic condition diagnosis. We simply did not discuss diabetes at home. I was not allowed to watch anything related to diabetes on television. This was long before the internet. I lived in fear I was going to die. I did not understand what was going on with my body and why I had to make such drastic changes to my eating and lifestyle.
How did you manage as a child growing up with type 1 diabetes?
I mostly used denial as a means of coping. I hid candy. In school I ate cookies and sweets. I was scared and angry. I thought I was fooling everyone. I eventually got caught and the shame was overwhelming.
I developed a serious eating disorder in elementary school. I wanted to be normal. I wanted to be like all the other kids. I was acting out of fear.
Especially in those days but even now the stigma of diabetes is hard on children. It is very isolating. Kids feel different or left out or ‘sick.’
Communication is key. With all the advancements in technology diabetes is easier to manage in this day and age. I encourage parents to talk to their kids about diabetes, that it is not a death sentence, that we can not only survive but thrive.
What role did dance play in your life?
I was a very active child. I started dancing seriously in high school. It was an escape for me. It was a safe place where I felt normal and nobody knew I was sick. I have always been a classic ‘overachiever.’ I became very focused on a professional career and moving to New York City. I thought when people saw me on the stage I could not be judged for my chronic condition. It was crazy but that is how I felt.
My eating disorder had become out of control. I would eat a dozen donuts, take some laxatives, exercise 6-8 hours per day. I was screaming for help. It is a miracle I survived.
My time in dance class was my freedom.
Your dancing did take you to New York City and then Los Angeles. You also experienced serious diabetes complications. How did this change your life? How did you cope?
Yes, three days after my senior recitals I was in New York City. I never believed in wasting time. I soon had the chance to move to Los Angeles to study with a prestigious commercial dance school. It was an exciting time. I was living my dream – or so I thought.
The complications began soon after I moved to LA. I was just 20 years old. Years of abusing my body with an eating disorder caught up to me. I was still binging, purging and compulsively exercising.
We simply did not discuss diabetes at home. I was not allowed to watch anything related to diabetes on television. This was long before the internet.
I saw spots in my eyes. This began a difficult process of 40 eye surgeries and the loss of vision in my left eye and partial loss in the right. I had to face my life. I was declared legally blind. I could no longer drive. It was a sorrowful end of my professional dancer performance career before it even began.
In a way it was blessing. If I kept living in denial I was going to die. I began to take responsibility for my health and manage my diabetes. I went into treatment for my eating disorder.
Can you tell us about The SWEET ENUFF Movement and also about the Victory Dance Project?
In the years after my diabetes complications I really took responsibility for my life and my future. I began practicing SGI Nichiren Buddhism, chanting Nam Myoho Renge Kyo. I understood that the obstacles I had overcome were going to serve a bigger purpose.
SWEET ENUFF Movement is a youth dance-based diabetes and obesity program for kids. I knew other kids shared my feelings of isolation and fear. I used my dance and theater background to create a school education program that was educational and fun. It was a cool way for kids living with, or affected by, diabetes to share with their peers and have dialogue about their health concerns.
The SWEET ENUFF Movement went on to be a top five national finalist of First Lady Michelle Obama’s ‘End Childhood Obesity Challenge.’
But then, In 2009, I faced another life altering moment. I was hit and run over by a New York City bus. Pinned under the tire, thinking I no longer had a right leg. I vowed if I survived there would be a Victory Dance.
Despite diabetes, severe bacterial infection, cardiac trauma and 18 surgeries, I somehow survived. My right leg was literally rebuilt. My rehabilitation has been deemed ‘miraculous.’ My diabetes drastically complicated the severity of the accident but I kept chanting to transform my situation and create value.
As I promised myself, I launched ‘The Victory Dance Project’ in 2014 with the mission to ‘Make the Impossible Possible with the Power of Movement’ and encourage everyone around the world to ‘Dance Because You Can.’
I am honored and humbled to work with some of the most amazing dancers and people in the world. I set all the choreography.
The Victory Dance Project recently celebrated its second anniversary. I have also started sharing my story in public, hoping to motivate those dealing with obstacles on how to create Victory in life no matter what the obstacle.
My diabetes is now better managed than it has ever been and I am healthier at 47 than I have ever been. I hope to be a living example of what is possible and that even if there are challenges living with diabetes we can thrive beyond our imagination.
All photos courtesy of Amy Jordan.