BWW Interview: Paige Fraser Fulfills her Dream: Lion King National Tour
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Q. Tell us about your dance background, where you grew up, your training.
A. I was born and raised in the Bronx. I was always dancing around the house.One day my Mom and I were in a shopping mall, and I was dancing around with no care in the world. Another person saw me and suggested to my mom that I needed a dance school. She enrolled me in a local ballet studio in Westchester, NY. I was four years old. The rest is history.
I had other outlets, swimming and ice skating classes, but my commitment was solely to dance. When I was ten years old, I was given the opportunity to play Clara in The Nutcracker at my dance studio in Pelham Manor. Most of the students were white, as were my teachers. The fact that they selected a dancer of color to portray Clara was a huge deal.
I started believing in myself because I felt the support of my teachers. They saw something in me that I had not yet seen or understood. They pushed me to be my greatest.
Q. Did you find obstacles in your way?
- When I turned 13, I faced one of my biggest challenges. I went to the doctor for an annual check-up, and they noticed that my spine had a slight curvature. Following that, everything moved quickly. I got x-rays done on my spine and was diagnosed with scoliosis. Surgery was instantly recommended-- the doctors thought it would continue to grow and worsen as I matured. I was terrified. All I wanted to be was a professional dancer. I was fortunate to have parents that believed in my talents and took it upon themselves to look for another opinion.
We found an excellent chiropractor, Dr. Alex Eingorn, who specialized in scoliosis. He recommended I wear a corrective back for school and another one for sleeping. It was awful! I was attending Professional Performing Arts High School in Manhattan and training at the Alvin Ailey School. I was growing into my body as a teenager---a very awkward time for me. I only felt free when I was dancing, even if there were times when I felt like giving up. I had to understand that my spine, if shaped differently, would affect my alignment.
As dancers, we strive for perfect lines, and feet, and jumps, and body. I was dealing with a diagnosis causing your body to do the opposite of the ideal alignment. I was frustrated and became afraid to try anything. I had to re-learn how to go against the incorrect posture to which I was born. I had to accept that this was my new reality. It made me unique. I was grateful I could still dance and had no pain.
I do believe God was with me because I had the mentorship of Sophia Fatouros, a teacher who also had Scoliosis. She guided me through that challenging time by giving me PT strengthening exercises. I realized that I was surrounded by love and support--it helped me push past this obstacle. I was eager to learn and improve. I didn't care that I had to work harder than my classmates. I am still this way to this day.
Q. You have been very outspoken about your issues with scoliosis. As a dancer with scoliosis, how do you deal with it and maintain your form?
A. I am a proud Scoliosis Warrior! Speaking about it is healing to me and also important. There are so many dancers with Scoliosis, and I want to be transparent with my journey so that they can go about it in a healthy way. I have found that movement, massage, and therapy have been my saving grace. About three years ago, I had a painful shin splint in my left leg and started taking Floorbarre in NYC with Marjorie Liebert. She really helped me to understand my body and how to activate the proper muscles that could prevent injury. I lived and danced in Chicago at the time, so all of our classes were via Skype. I was determined to correct my bad habits.
Q. Do you have advice for other performers with this condition?
A. Invest in your health. The more you know about your spine and the weaker parts of your body--the more you can prevent injury. It is vital to know your curve and what it needs--therapies like Ballet Floorbarre, Yoga, Pilates, Gyrotonics. It will be a lifetime of exploration for me as a person with Scoliosis, and I am ok with that. I have a different level of awareness about my body.
Q. Where do you currently work? What have you been able to bring to your current position with your past experiences?
A. I am an ensemble dancer in The Lion King, North American Rafiki Tour, after auditioning eight times. It is one of the hardest yet fulfilling jobs I have done. Performing 8 shows a week while traveling is not an easy feat. You have to be mentally and physically healthy. I have at least 14 costume changes throughout the show. It is a dream come true to be in this iconic show dancing choreography by Garth Fagan. It was a matter of timing, and I am glad I never gave up. It truly is a magical show that inspires everyone of all ages.
Q. What are your previous professional affiliations?
A. My first professional job was Ailey 2, the Second Company of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. I then joined Visceral Dance Chicago as an original founding member, staying six seasons. During that time, I was a guest artist with Deeply Rooted Dance Theatre. My first musical theatre job was in "West Side Story" at the Lyric Opera in Chicago. I played a Jet, which was very surprising to me. I love that the production people were so open to re-writing the narrative and including an African American Jet.
Q. What would you say is the essential element to you as a performer?
A. Storytelling. Living legends like Judith Jamison and Debbie Allen inspire me because they dance with their spirit. They were able to do concert dance and musical theatre. They are the true definition of artistry and grace.
Q. What is your experience with teaching and choreography?
A. My love for teaching came naturally. While in Ailey 2, we would teach masterclasses as ambassadors of Mr. Ailey. I love sharing what I know with the next generation. I must also thank my mentor, Kenneth Epting, for allowing me to teach and choreograph on his students in Houston in 2014.
My love of choreographing was born during my time at Visceral. Being in a contemporary company, many choreographers allow you to collaborate with them in their creative process. They want to see your voice come to life in their work. That was the beginning of my journey to choreography.
In 2017 I created and danced in my first professional work "(re)location" This platform led me to other choreographic opportunities at Northwestern University (2019) and Dance in the Park (2019).
Question. You have formed the Paige Fraser Foundation. Tell us about it, its purpose, and its reach.
Answer: The Paige Fraser Foundation aims to create a safe space for dancers with or without disabilities. As an advocate for Scoliosis, I want to continue to raise awareness about this condition globally. Since launching in 2017, we have created two programs: Dance is Healing, our FREE inclusive dance program, and The Spine Series, a program geared for those with Scoliosis and focuses on spine health and wellness through movement and breathing. The Spine Series will also be an annual conference. Our long term goal is to build a performing arts center in the Northeast Bronx.
Q. What are your goals?
A. To be the best artist I can be. I would love to be on Broadway one day. I also want to tap more into acting and be in a movie. I am also co-writing a non-fiction children's book with my mother, Alexia Fraser. The book is about my journey as a dancer of color. Our goal is to release it in fall 2020 or 2021. More to come!
Q. What are your fears?
A. Rejection. For many years I would beat myself up about not getting the job I wanted. As I matured, I realized that what is for you will always come when you are ready. Some of my most significant accomplishments happened when I least expected it. Continue to do the work and stay focused on yourself. I still fear not being good enough--I am human. Thankfully, now I can shake that off because I know who I am and what I can offer. Be humble yet confident in your gifts.
Q. How are you coping during the pandemic, COVID 19, that affects all of us?
A. Every day is different. Honoring that is key. Reach out to loved ones. Cook yourself a healthy and delicious meal. Find time for the things that bring you joy, take a walk, listen to music. Move and stretch your body. Stay creative. Rest and repeat.
Q. How do you stay in shape?
Answer: Since we are all inside during this pandemic, I take classes virtually. I have built a schedule that allows me to balance between Floor Barre, Ballet/Modern, and Yoga. Staying mobile and steady is critical. I do miss jumping across the stage.
Do not take anything for granted. Breathe and give yourself some grace. I know for me, this break was needed. I am healing my mind and body.
I wish you all the best as you continue along your path!
photo credit: Todd Rosenberg
Dancing in Quarantine
Stand Up (I'm Harriet in the hat)