Paige Fraser discusses overcoming obstacles

Zenephia Evans, director of the Science Diversity Office at the Purdue College of Science, discusses overcoming challenges with dancer Paige Fraser.

A professional dancer in the national tour of "The Lion King" tour talked to an audience Monday about how she achieved her dance and life goals despite a diagnosis of scoliosis.

Paige Fraser's diagnosis came out of nowhere at a routine checkup in high school.

“I know there are some cases where people wake up in extreme pain," Fraser said. "I had absolutely no symptoms."

The diagnosis made her question whether she would be able to pursue dance in the future, but she said her family found a way to allow her to keep dancing without getting surgery: a chiropractor who could help correct her spine using a back brace.

“I think something different about me was that I didn't allow it to hold me back,” Fraser said. “I was very vocal with my teachers and my dance teachers especially and told them what was going on.”

Fraser said the support of her family, teachers and peers was essential to overcoming the challenges.

“Everyone embraced me, and it was really, really beautiful because I could have just kept it to myself and suffered in silence, but I knew that I needed help,” she said.

Fraser said that through her diagnosis and through dance she was able to overcome her difficulties and tune into her body, and in turn, that helped her break out of her shell.

“Having grace with myself and knowing that I just have to work a little harder," she said, "and that work actually made me more aware of my body, even outside of dance — how I carry myself, how I sit — all those things helped to kind of stabilize the condition."

Fraser has been dancing since she was 4 years old and said until high school, her story was pretty normal.

She experienced a turning point when at age 10 she was cast as Clara in "The Nutcracker" as an African American girl. That was when her passion for dance grew even more, Fraser said.

“It was a really big deal," Fraser said. "I didn't realize it at first. I was so young.”

She said her being cast in such a lead role in a city as large as New York had a big influence on how she felt about dancing.

“I think around that time was when I started to feel the support from my teacher and (think), ‘Oh, maybe I am kind of good at this,’ and I started to take it way more seriously as the years progressed,” Fraser said.

Fraser said she drew a lot of inspiration from other female African American role models in the industry who came before her, who made it possible for her to get the roles she has had.

“It's important to know the people that came before you and who laid the foundation, so I can be in 'The Lion King,'” Fraser said.

The nonprofit Paige Fraser Foundation is dedicated to teaching the next generation of dancers, with or without disabilities, that they can also have a career in dance, Fraser said.

“I would love to continue spreading — and I call this the gospel — about dancers with disabilities and letting people know that it is possible to have a professional career as a dancer, as a dancer of color, as a female dancer of color and as a female dancer of color with a disability,” Fraser said.

Carolyn Johnson, the director of Purdue's diversity resource office, said Fraser's experience can remind all college students to learn from people's stories.

“One thing I would say to the audience is just to remind all of us that the things you heard tonight really are the essence of what we hope will happen in your college career," Johnson said, "and that is to remember how powerful an individual story can be and learn from other people's stories, but you also have to learn from your own."

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